Comic book hero Peter Parker was bit by a spider. Some might say that Roy McPherson was bit by a trombone.
It is not overstating to say that McPherson is a superhero of a local musician — most longtime locals have either been taught by him, listened to one of the many bands he’s conducted or remember McPherson Music, the Ketchikan shop that he and wife Tina owned for 30 years.
City of Ketchikan Mayor Dave Kiffer, also a local saxophone artist, was one of his students.
“Leading a city council or borough assembly isn’t nearly as challenging as leading a bunch of high-spirited high school musicians,” Kiffer said. “Roy gave us all plenty of rope to learn to lead with and to learn how to get along, and make sure that while everyone got their solo space, the goal was, in the end, play together. I was a late-life child and my siblings were way older. The other band geeks were my family, and Roy was the papa of all that.”
McPherson’s origin story helps explain the band families he’s helped create over the years, and why he’s spent his life offering young musicians a helping hand.
Born in 1938 in Highland Park, Michigan, McPherson moved around a lot as a kid — he chuckles now at how school report cards saved by his mom reveal many schools spread out over his home state, Delaware and California.
Mostly raised by his mother and two stepfathers, it was the summer he spent with his biological dad as a sixth grader that would introduce him to the instrument that would someday make him a maestro.
“The sound of the trombone — I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he said, adding on the radio program “After Hours” with Stephanie Patton: “It can bring the sunshine.”
By the time McPherson was in middle school, his mom had settled in Michigan. His junior high band instructor found him a trombone to play, but offered little support.
“He said, ‘I don’t have time to work with you. Do what the guy next to you does,’” McPherson remembered. “I found out at some point that the other people knew the name of their notes and I didn’t.”
McPherson was a quick study and made up for lost time. In high school, he became a frequent face in the musical program, earning places in honor bands and orchestras. Much like his junior high band teacher, his parents were at a loss of how to support their musical son.
“My mom didn’t go to my concerts when I was in high school,” he said. When he received a scholarship to attend the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts summer camp, he had to take a series of buses there. “It didn’t enter my parents’ minds to take me.”
When it came time to graduate high school in 1956, McPherson eyed Wayne State University, his high school band director’s alma mater but he had no money to attend. With a large Ford Motors manufacturing plant in nearby Ypsilanti, his future was practically written in motor oil.
“When I decided to go to college, my mother said, ‘Why would you want to do that?’” he said. “My parents weren’t real interested in my going to school.”
He submitted a job application at Ford.
“They said, ‘Your typing skills aren’t very good, but if you rent a typewriter for a week, practice, come back, we’ll have a spot for you in the office — if you improve,’” McPherson remembered.
Although he was offered a job, those plans got sidetracked by a serendipitous call from his high school counselor.
“The person who had received a scholarship couldn’t take advantage of it,” McPherson said. “She said, ‘You’re second on the list. If you go to Eastern Michigan, you can also get a state scholarship.’ I called Ford back and said sorry — thanks for the offer — but I’m going to school.”
It was life-changing funding he would never forget; McPherson said he firmly believes that if that hadn’t happened, there’s an excellent chance he would have spent a long career in the auto industry.
Many people know what happened next: His plans to become a biology teacher were promptly derailed as he was swiftly folded in to the Eastern Michigan musical program and its marching, concert and jazz bands.
He transferred schools after hearing a mind-blowing marching band performance from Central Michigan University. When he would go home for family visits, McPherson would hitchhike the 90-minute journey there and back.
Central Michigan is also where he met his first wife, mother to his three children.
“My kids laugh about it: ‘If you hadn’t heard that marching band, we wouldn’t be here!’” McPherson said, chuckling. “It was true!”
After getting his master’s degree, he taught in his home state for a couple of years before moving to California in the mid-1960s. He initially taught junior high students in the Fresno area. He moved to teaching at the area’s high school when dear friend and college roommate Bernie Hendricks vacated it (Later, Hendricks would later work at Juneau Douglas High School for 20-plus years at the prompting of McPherson). Together, they built a music program that dominated honor band competitions.
McPherson learned a Southeast Alaska school district was searching for a new high school band and choir teacher. It was a longtime dream to work in the Last Frontier. He said that in college, he’d worked as a school custodian and lunch breaks often found him in the library looking at books and magazines about life up north.
“I’d read about the mountains and the ocean, and I thought: Someday I gotta get near the water,” he said.
McPherson said he came to Ketchikan for an interview and Superintendent Will Riggen gave him a tour. Life here seemed to be nearly opposite that of Fresno, both in terms of climate and bar-to-church ratio. It was the early 1970s, and Ketchikan was at the height of its Ketchikan Pulp Mill days and everything that came with it.
“When I came up here, I went to a softball game over at Dudley Field and the umpire was out standing by the pitcher with a beer in each hand,” he said. “I thought, ‘Boy. This is really different!’”
He took the job at Ketchikan High School in 1972 and would remain here for 10 years. He discovered a community that was very generous to its music program. Where his California students shared three French horns, he said, Ketchikan’s school district boasted an astounding 19 of them. This was also at a time when the school was teeming with students — nearly twice the number compared to today, he said.
He described fundraisers that featured 24-hour live music, earning $11,000 in its third year.
“The pulp mill was very good at supporting us,” he said.
A separate choir teacher was hired early on, allowing McPherson to focus on building a strong band and jazz program from ground zero. He credited Principal Ron Stekl for his unwavering support, and other Southeast Alaska high school music directors for their shared support.
In short order, more than 20 sax players simultaneously walked the halls of the high school. He said some students opted to take required foreign language classes through the community college rather than miss a particular jazz class.
There are plenty of examples of how McPherson set a high bar and expected students to meet it. He is OK with that.
“Every exceptional thing I’ve ever heard was because the teacher expected too much from the kids, and the kids bought in to it and did it,” he said.
He said some parents chafed at his rule that freshmen were not allowed to play in a school concert until the springtime, but added that it also built students’ excitement and provided the necessary time to do the hard work to excel.
Another time, McPherson had a particular band section that sounded like a “car wreck” when it came to their D-flat concert scale. They told him they were too busy to practice, he said. McPherson called out to their bandmates:
“Clarinets: Play it. Tubas: Play it. Trombones: Play it. Trumpets: Play it.” Unlike his junior high band teacher, he didn’t force the sheepish flute section to figure it out on their own. That next week, he worked with them one-on-one during lunch until they got it.
But he added that it was important to notice when downtime was needed.
“Maybe the flu was going around or maybe I wasn’t effective and I would say, ‘Put everything away and we’ll talk about (something else),” he said. “Then you come in the next day, and you say, ‘I’m going to do better, whatever I wasn’t doing.’ And you find the kids are also ready to go, too. Sometimes you need those valleys.”
McPherson had no desire to replicate the frightful impact of tyrant conductors he’d witnessed elsewhere:
“Maybe you played well, maybe phenomenal, but you played well out of fear. I never bought that. I never believed that. If the kids are on your side and you pick literature that suits them and motivates them and you demand a certain standard from them, you become a mirror,” he said.
His band program reflected something powerful — a found family united in music — and that resonated with Kiffer.
“High school students need a home away from home, a place where they are with their peers whether its athletes, gamers, musicians, artists — whatever,” Kiffer said. “And while most of the other kids couldn’t wait for the final bell to get the heck out of Dodge, we couldn’t wait to gather in the band room and hang. Most days, Roy would have to remind us around 5 p.m. or so it was time to go home. So many of those kids are still doing music nearly a half century later and that’s because of Roy.”
McPherson said Kiffer and Stan Aegerter were two of his strong student leaders who helped mentor up-and-coming musicians. He fondly remembered how these two would return from out-of-town performances with suitcases overflowing with jazz records and worked with younger students on improvisation.
McPherson rode the Alaska ferry system with his students to out-of-town competitions and performances as often as possible, taking them to competitions and performances through the Pacific Northwest, California and beyond.
One of McPherson’s favorite Lower 48 trips came at the suggestion of a school board member, who issued him a challenge: If his jazz band earned one of two coveted high school band spots at the 1980 National School Board Convention in San Francisco, the school district would pay the expense.
“They did and they did,” McPherson said. They played for a crowd of 10,000 people: “The last piece we did was just a real grabber. It was very difficult. We got three standing ovations during that piece.”
Other Lower 48 band teachers openly shared their appreciation with him for his students’ superior playing, posture and knowledge, so he was stunned to once witness an entire band stop its practice to seemingly stare down Ketchikan’s students.
“I thought it was kind of strange,” McPherson said. “When they could be warming up, they just stared at us. After all the bands had finished warming up, (their band teacher) came over and said, ‘I just want to tell you: I told my band to stop playing and listen to your band. This is what I’ve been trying to get them to do and sound for three years.’”
By the time his first tenure in Ketchikan wrapped up, McPherson’s first marriage had ended in 1975 and he reconnected a few years later with previous student Tina Stenfjord. They have been married since 1981.
“She’s got tremendous energy. Tina loves everybody — absolutely everybody,” McPherson said. “She’s conscientious, she’s artistic and she has a great sense of humor. She’s gifted and very bright. She’s well organized. There’s no one more honest than her.”
An opportunity in 1982 to teach at the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts in Pennsylvania lured the McPhersons down south. He loved his time there and at Ashland College in Ohio.
Five years later, during a trip to see Tina’s family in Alaska, the couple was flagged down by music store owner George Rozwick. He offered them a deal too sweet to refuse: Buy his store and move home. They did exactly that, operating McPherson Music for the next 30 years.
The shop became a hub for local students and experienced musicians. It also became the birthplace for three new student jazz bands: Windjammers, Discovery Band and Soundwaves. He also conducted the Ketchikan Community Concert Band for adults and started Scattered Sunshine, a trombone choir.
Krysta Kelley, formerly Smestad and now living in Kansas with her husband, was part of his Soundwaves group.
“Mr. McPherson saw things in me I didn’t see myself. I never considered myself very good at music but he did,” Kelley said. “We were having a concert at Kayhi and my saxophone was not working — so I just pretended to play. When we were done, I told some friends and we were working on it to fix it. Mr. McPherson said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about it onstage?’ I would never speak up like that — but that’s what he wanted. He was telling me to speak up.”
She said his support of her extended to her father, Randy, who was encouraged by him to take drum lessons. Randy has been playing drums in church ever since, she said, and even offers lessons.
The McPhersons worked with the families of 20-year-old Jerry Galley and 16-year-old Sam Pitcher to create memorial scholarships following their sudden deaths in 2000 and 2003. Between the two scholarships, more than 100 students have been provided with life-changing funding.
Many awards were received along the way, including Ketchikan business of the year, citizens of the year, a meritorious service award from the University of Alaska Southeast and a place in the Alaska High School Hall of Fame.
After three decades, the McPhersons permanently closed their store in 2017. Former student Jeff Karlson took over leadership of the community band. McPherson said that he and Tina hope to resume offering lessons from their home studio sometime soon, but they are permanently retired from instrument sales and service.
Nowadays, the trim 83-year-old McPherson sports a white beard and voraciously reads a couple of books per week (he recommends “The Worst Hard Time” and “The World in a Grain”). He also loves to listen to music, spend time with his wife, and dogs Sally and Sara — for the last 41 years, he and Tina have owned rescued Springer Spaniels.
He said he’s excited for the talent he sees in this town and encourages young musicians to work hard for what might be around the next corner.
“No young person should ever walk out of this program and not want to participate if they move. None of them should be penalized if they live on an island. They should be able to hold their heads up,” he said.