Life story: Band director created ‘quite a legacy’ at St. Rita
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com February 22, 2013 7:30PM
Updated: March 25, 2013 6:43AM
The St. Rita High School band will pay tribute to the man who created a musical legacy at the Southwest Side school when it performs Monday at the funeral service of former band director Louis Ricci.
Band members will be joined by many alumni whose lives have been deeply touched by the man who taught them so much more than music.
“It will be a great send-off,” band director Cindy Gradek said, explaining they will perform the St. Rita fight song one last time for their beloved director. “There is no better way to honor him than with music.”
Mr. Ricci, 77, died Monday. A 1953 graduate of St. Rita, he was the part-time band director at his alma mater from 1957 to ’85 while working full time at Kennedy High School. He also served as band director at Marshall and Parker high schools and inspired many inner-city students during his 37-year career.
“He always stayed close to the (band) program and St. Rita,” Gradek said. “He created quite a legacy here.”
Mr. Ricci always attended the concerts and banquets and was a guest conductor at a recent Christmas concert. Gradek named the annual director’s award in his honor, and Mr. Ricci himself presented it to his grandson last year, she said.
“I am honored to follow in his footsteps. I feel privileged to have the same position,” said Gradek, whose high school band director, Mike Madonia, was one of Mr. Ricci’s students. “I feel like I’m his grandchild.
“People have the utmost respect for him. He was one of those really likeable people, a gentle giant,” she said.
Former students said they were inspired by his dedication and love for his students. Mr. Ricci, they said, changed their lives.
“I did not like playing an instrument. I did not want to be in band. Then I met Lou Ricci,” said Madonia, now the band director at T.F. South High School in Lansing. “I saw his passion for teaching, his dedication and commitment. He juggled two schools. He ruled the band with a thundering velvet fist.
“When I started teaching, I immersed myself to be the best, with Lou as an example. He gave me a lot of vision and direction. This is a great loss, a sad loss.”
Madonia recalled that he sent Mr. Ricci a Father’s Day card one year that read, “Everything I am I owe to you. It’s all your fault.”
Many of Mr. Ricci’s former band members went into a variety of music-related careers, Madonia said.
Besides being a great band director, Mr. Ricci also was a “very talented” musician, able to play all the woodwinds and the piano, said Madonia, who will conduct the alumni band at Mr. Ricci’s service.
Another former student, the Rev. Tom McCarthy, now chairman of the board at St. Rita, said Mr. Ricci taught more than music. He instilled in his students “dedication, pride and commitment,” McCarthy said. “He taught us to work hard and have fun. He had a way with kids. We knew he cared about us.
“I was not the best musician. I was going to quit band but he convinced me to give it another week or two. That was the best advice I ever took. My high school life would have been completely different without band,” said McCarthy, who will preach at Mr. Ricci’s funeral.
“Every one of us called him ‘Lou’ and there was not an ounce of disrespect for him. We’ve never had any teachers called by their first name,” he said.
As a father, “he was just the best,” said Mr. Ricci’s daughter, Mary Lou Spinasanto. “He was always there for us. We always came first.”
Even though her dad spent a lot of time at his schools, “it was never at the expense of the family,” she said. “His death is a huge loss to us.”
Ironically, none of Mr. Ricci’s children pursued an interest in band, but one of his grandsons is majoring in music at college, Spinasanto said.
“It would be nice if his legacy continued,” she said.
Mr. Ricci’s career is filled with accolades. He received the Congressional Teacher Merit Award in 1986, the Chicagoland Outstanding Music Educator Award in 1997, was inducted into the Midwest Music Festival Hall of Fame in 2006 and was honored by High School Today Magazine in 2008.
His bands received numerous superior ratings at Chicago Public Schools music contests and performed at halftime for the Chicago Cardinals and Bears football games as well as many parades and civic events.
Mr. Ricci directed honor bands for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson when they visited Chicago. He was an adjudicator for the Illinois High School Association.
Visitation for Mr. Ricci will be from 2 to 8 p.m. Sunday and 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Monday at the St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel, 7740 S. Western Ave., Chicago. Mass is at 10:30 a.m. Monday. Interment is at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, 6001 W. 111th St., near Alsip.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Raymond and Mildred McCarthy Financial Aid Fund at St. Rita High School.
Besides Spinasanto, Mr. Ricci is survived by his wife of 53 years, Mary Frances; three sons, Daniel, Michael and Nick; and seven grandchildren.