The sun had set and the crowd had broken away, but a small group of Moffat County High School students remained on an empty and darkened football field Thursday.
They huddled together against a sharp breeze and shared stories about the Craig Middle School band teacher who had been memorialized minutes earlier.
Craig Smith was the reason the friends had gathered. But, perhaps more importantly, Smith was the reason they are all friends, some said.
“I’m pretty sure he was the person that introduced us to everyone we know,” MCHS senior Kellie Looper said. “He introduced us to all our best friends.”
Smith, who taught band at CMS for nine years, died Sunday of a brain aneurysm at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. He was 64.
MCHS was the site of two back-to-back events to honor Smith’s impact on the community: a band concert held in the high school auditorium followed by a balloon release and benediction on the football field.
MCHS band director John Bolton started the concert with a brief, heartfelt message from the auditorium stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have about 30 seconds on this microphone before I turn into Jell-O,” he said to a nearly full house. “I’m sensing the loss of my good friend. But more so, I’m sensing the loss of the Smith family.
“We loved him. And, thank you for sharing him.”
And with those words, a night of music began.
First, MCHS senior Karen Bolton conducted the CMS sixth-grade choir through a short performance. Then, the elder Bolton conducted the CMS sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade bands through a succession of short sets.
The music was lighthearted for the most part. The set list included songs like “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Kokomo.”
If those tunes sound irreverent for the setting, it’s because the show was never intended to be a memorial. It was supposed to be the annual spring concert, and Craig Smith had every intention of conducting it.
But, circumstances intervened.
Instead of canceling the event, John Bolton stepped in for his departed friend, and the concert was re-cast as a memorial.
“The work that you’ll hear this evening is Craig’s,” Bolton said earlier in the night. “I’ve had the privilege of stepping in and working with these kids this week.
“We’ve got a great program for you.”
Shortly after the concert, as the crowd moved toward the football field for the balloon release, seventh-grade trombonist Kelvin Ashton paused to reflect on the performance.
Despite the pressure of the event, Ashton said the band rose to the challenge.
“It was pretty great,” he said. “It’s the best we’ve done.”
Ashton said Smith will be missed.
“He’s a great teacher and a good friend,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Seventh-grade percussionist Taylor Oxenreider said the experience was emotional, but the band pulled it off.
“It was pretty rough. I got a little teary-eyed,” she said. “It was good, though.”
On the football field, students, teachers, family and friends held blue and white balloons by white tethers, then released them into a darkening, twilight sky.
Then, after the crowd filed out, only a few high school students remained. The students all learned music from Smith when they attended CMS.
“He was strict,” Looper said. “But, he knew how to make everyone happy at the same time.”
Freshman Caitlin Harjes recalled that Smith could be intimidating, particularly on the first day of class in sixth grade.
“On the very first day, you’re worried about what he might do to you,” she said. “Then, he became more like a dad, or a grandpa, or an uncle.”
The students said Smith shaped them into musicians from scratch. Freshman Nicole Ferree said it must have been hard work.
“For about the first six months, I don’t know how he put up with us,” she said.
The students described a process by which Smith would determine which instrument was best suited to each child.
Looper said he was patient and methodical.
“What he does, is he goes through every single person, takes out every single instrument, and tries them all out for the first two weeks,” she said.
Ferree recalled Smith discussing his method.
“He was telling me how every instrument has its own personality, and once you find that person that matches that personality, it clicks,” Ferree said.
The method worked on her, she added.
“He was definitely the person who influenced me to play music,” Ferree said. “I play 12 instruments now, and he started me on my first three.”
Senior Carina Meza said she might never have played an instrument if it wasn’t for Smith’s insistence.
“I didn’t sign up for band my sixth-grade year, but he kind of kept following me and pushing me to join band, so I did,” Meza said.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” she said of her circle of friends.
Harjes agreed that Smith’s influence extends beyond music.
“He made us into who we are, and there’s no amount of words that can thank him,” Harjes said.
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