Lessons from a Great Mentor

Brian Kelley, 2010-09-28

On Sunday I learned of the passing of one of my greatest mentors, Major Herbert L. Day, USMC, Retired. He was Director of Bands at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, from 1984-2004. My tenure there started in August 1991 and ended with graduation in May 1995. I can honestly say that I am where I am today because of Major Day. Before my junior year of high school, my home life began to fall apart. After graduation, it completely shattered. So when I reported as a knob (freshman) to The Citadel, I was in a world of hurt. And when my home life spilled into the lap of my company commander during my first couple of weeks at El Cid, it came to the attention of Major Day. Over the next four years he helped me put things in perspective, he challenged me with opportunities to grow me, he chewed me out when I needed it most, and he pushed me constantly. He helped me understand that life was never going to be fair, that I couldn’t make it fair, but that I could perserve, survive, and excel. For most of my tenure at The Citadel, it was all about survival. My home life didn’t start to straighten up until towards the end of my senior year at The Citadel. And survive I did, mostly thanks to Major Day. Here’s what made him a great mentor then and in the years afterwards.

He cared.

I have a lot of stories of where Major Day took the time to know what was going on in my life. And it wasn’t just me. A lot of guys in Regimental Band have similar stories. When life was unfair and we were stuck and he knew about it, if he could help, he did. As a mentor, you’ve got to care about the people under you. As a leader, you understand they matter and they can tell the difference between someone going through the motions and one who genuinely cares. Major Day genuinely cared. The fact that he didn’t let me give up on myself when he had a hundred other cadets under his charge showed me that. The countless hours he poured into my life, above and beyond the duties of Regimental Band showed how much he cared.

He was quick to praise what was important.

One guy commented about how Major Day told him good job the first and only time he made Dean’s List. Praise from Major Day was hard to come by. The only smoke he blew came from his cigarette. So when Major told you that you had done something well, you knew it meant something. One of the stories I have was from the time shortly after I became a Christian. I was on flute accompanying the Protestant choir. The choir director had to shift keys because they weren’t singing at their normal range. So I was literally transposing on the fly. But not only was that going on, but the temperature in Summerall Chapel had changed substantially from when we warmed up to when we started playing. Needless to say, I was out of tune. I caught it immediately and tuned up quickly during the first few measures of the first hymn and then I was okay because I was constantly listening and adjusting. Summerall Chapel can be a draft place. Major Day was in the congregation that morning. After the service he found me and I asked him, “Did I do all right?” He responded, “You were fine, Kelley. But what really impressed me was how quickly you were able to correct being out of tune.” I was playing for God. It was the first real gift I was able to give back to Him. And as a musician I understood then and believe passionately now that the little things matter. Major Day understood that about me, too. Such words from Major Day were like gold.

He pushed us hard.

Major Day never accepted just okay. And he never accepted someone resting on their talent. I can’t count how many times he threatened to rip someone’s lips off. That wasn’t a promise or a prediction; it was a prophecy. Then there was that gaze. When you messed up, especially because you were being careless or because you hadn’t practiced like you should have, Major Day would give you that gaze of his. I met career Marines who had been under Major Day’s leadership when he was still on active duty. He froze them with that stare. For us cadets, it was no different. I hated that stare. For me it meant that I had slacked off. He knew it and I knew it. Every time he gave me those eyes, I deserved it.

But it wasn’t just the glare. I wanted to earn the Distinguished Instrumentalist Award and I was bound and determined to be the first flute player to do it. We set aside a day, the day of company party my knob year to do it. Alcohol had a lot to do with the destroyed home life I had, so the last thing I wanted to be around was booze. So I worked all day for that DIA award for what I thought was a relatively simple set of requirements. I remember playing some solos three or four times before Major considered it acceptable. Every dynamic marking had to be perfectly interpreted. Every phrasing had to be right on. These were solos I thought I knew because I had been working on them a lot in the days leading up to when I tested for DIA. And that still wasn’t enough. I still had to make corrections, a lot of them, before they passed muster with Major Day.

He gave us opportunities to succeed.

My sophomore year I took over as band librarian. I served in that role for two years. It’s not a hard job, but it’s a meticulous one. You’ve got to make sure all the music is ready and in everyone’s folders. When you’ve got four parts for most of the brass, two to three parts for each of the woodwinds, etc., and there can be 10 or 11 pieces of music, there’s a lot to keep track of. Major Day would give me plenty of time, but it was up to me to make sure I got the work done. I always did. I didn’t want to disappoint him. And when I saw an opportunity to clean up and improve the music library, he gave me some things he wanted to see happen, but left the rest up to me. Again, nothing hard, but still an opportunity to take a project on my own and see it through. I loved that job.

Another thing he did was talk to our tactical officer about me being on cadre for my junior year. The cadre train the incoming freshmen. It’s a hard job. It’s more demanding on the cadre than it is on the knobs. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t on anyone’s list other than Major Day’s for that shot. I was far from being a squared away cadet. See home life problems above. But sure enough, it was announced that I was a cadre sergeant. The next time I was up in the band room, Major Day called me into his office. He talked to me about his expectations and why he thought it would be a good opportunity for me. He knew it would grow me, and grow me a lot. I often look back to that time and remember a lot of the personal lessons I learned from that time. I don’t know how good I was. But I know how much I learned and matured from the chance.

He believed in you even when you didn’t believe in yourself.

It was my senior year. I had the piccolo solo on Stars and Stripes Forever (about 2 minutes in). It was our annual concert in the park. And I completely botched the solo. The previous three years there were others to share the load. But my senior year I was on my own. And it was a disaster. We had one more concert where we’d do Stars and Stripes Forever. It was the annual concert in North Myrtle Beach. I figured as bad as I played, Major would pull something else out. I had no confidence that I could play that solo in front of an audience. I never got a chance to have my pity party. Major Day told me he wanted me upstairs in one of the practice rooms working on my solo. Yeah, I had butchered it, but I hadn’t the six previous times I played it in front of an audience. So it was time for me to suck it up, work on it, and make sure it was right. So that’s what I did. And the first time I played it to completion without a major flaw, Major Day poked his head in and said I was there, but not to think I was done. I still needed to practice or he’d rip my lips off (there’s that phrase again). So I did. And when I played it through a few days later just about as good as I could at that point in my musical career, he poked his head in again and said he noticed the improvement. I kept practicing until we went to North Myrtle Beach. I think I drove my fiancee nuts because I practiced on weekends, too. But she was a good sounding board, being a flute/piccolo player, too. And when we played that last concert, I nailed it. Major Day was the first to tell me I had done well.

There’s a lot more I could say, but that’s probably for another blog post. Major Day was an awesome mentor and I will miss him. I’m glad he got to meet my boys, though he never got to meet my daughter. They’ve grown up with some of his phrases because they are a part of me. Semper Fi, Major Day. Rest easy, Marine, for you taught us well and we’ve got the watch now.






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