Fayette City native Ross Brightwell still marching to the beat
Even at the age of 66, Ross Brightwell wants to be Leader of the Band.
The Fayette City native and former Army officer still finds a mission is music – specifically marching bands.
Brightwell lists his most thrilling accomplishment as receiving Indiana University of Pennsylvania's President's Medal of Distinction, the highest non-academic award the college gives, for developing the school's “Boost Music In Our Schools” program.
Brightwell, who now resides in Upper Dublin Township in the Philadelphia suburbs, found comfort in playing live music growing up with local athletic legends. He revels that he was always seemingly engulfed in a “winning atmosphere”.
“It turned out our class, athletically, did very well,” he said. “When you got home every day from school, you grabbed a football or basketball. In the spring, instead of the basketball, you grabbed your baseball and glove.”
Brightwell wasn't athletically apt, but he did earn his way onto the Bellmar High School marching band while still attending eighth grade. He quickly climbed to first chair for clarinet before picking up the giant bass drum his senior year in 1964.
“Our senior year, we had an undefeated football team and we'd have pep rallies,” Brightwell recalled. “The band was good, the team was good. I didn't (get) the girls like the quarterback, but I held my own.”
Brightwell is the son of Harry Read Brightwell and Lois Bradley Brightwell. His mother was “a mover and shaker” for local church groups, caring for the poor, while dad worked for U.S. Steel as a metallurgical engineer out of the Donora plant.
“Wire was his specialty. He would travel every week and go around and deal with customers,” Brightwell said. “I remember they did a lot of work with Brillo in New York.”
Brightwell believes his father once held the prototype for what would later be the twist tie.
“That's part of our family lore,” he said. “I remember going to the airport and dad coming of the plane carrying this giant spool. The diameter was about a foot-and-a-half across and 6 to 8 inches wide; there must've been hundreds of feet of it.”
“He said ‘I'm not sure what we're going to do with this, but Brillo thinks it's a good idea.' I don't know exactly who did what as far as (development), but every time I open a loaf of bread, I can't help but think of him.”
His father developed pancreatic cancer and died at the age of 48.
“He was kind of on the fast track for U.S. Steel, they gave him a full-blown physical and he was fine and moved him to Philadelphia,” the son lamented. “That Thanksgiving he was having some pain. He went in and they cut him open and basically said ‘Sorry, there's nothing we can do.'
“We took his body back to Fayette City to be buried. One of the top guys from Brillo was there. There were a lot of top guys from U.S. Steel who showed up as well.”
In the meantime, Brightwell was attending classes at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he ended up playing the school mascot – The Big Indian – at football games, including the NCAA Division II championship in Atlantic City.
Brightwell also marched in the band from 1964 to 1966. Things changed in September of 1969, when Brightwell got drafted for Vietnam one semester short of graduating.
He showed up in Uniontown to enlist but never boarded the bus.
“They start reading off the names and they load the buses and I'm still standing there,” Brightwell said. “The lady said, ‘Go ahead, roll.' I said, ‘Ma'am, I'm still here'.”
Turns out, President Richard Nixon was cutting down on the draft and Brightwell never received a letter stating he was no longer drafted. He had already quit school and gotten his tuition refunded.
“I'm sitting there scratching my head thinking ‘What do I do now?' when the recruiting sergeant puts a hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Your a college boy, aren't you? You ever consider Officer Candidate School?'”
Brightwell soon settled in the Army as a Second Lieutenant and ended up stationed for three years in Germany, just north of Nuremburg.
“Our unit was like every other unit. We'd sit on the border and stare at the Russians staring back at us,” he said. “I had to deal with the German public a lot. One day, the mayor was having a parade and I'm looking up and he has his little kid standing next to him and the kid has a black and gold cap with a ‘P' on it. The next time I was in his office, I asked ‘Does the mayor have anything do to with Pittsburgh?,' and they said he had his graduate work at Pitt.”
Three days later, Brightwell ended up showing a family from Butler who the mayor had stayed with while in the United States.
He received orders to be an escort officer for a USO show as they traveled base-to-base. His assignment teetered between escorting former children's program star Buffalo Bob or a college chorus from Wisconsin.
“They gave me the college kids. What they forgot to tell me this was an all-girls college,” Brightwell said, laughing. “I was 23 at the time and I have 24 college girls and a bus… and a nun. She was in charge of the chorus. We spent six weeks traveling all over Germany. It was great for me because I got to see all of Germany, including Berlin, which you weren't allowed to see back in those days.”
When he completed his Army career in 1979, Brightwell headed back to IUP to finally complete his last semester a decade later. He was stunned at how the school had changed: co-ed dorms, no curfews and recreational drug use.
But Brightwell's biggest culture shock was when he got a job working for a private company in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.
He worked along with men from South Korea, the Philippines, Kenya, Turkey and England, among others.
“We're all sitting around in the same dining hall and I'm supposed to be the big American but those guys all know three languages,” Brightwell said. “They have all these things, airports, sewage, but they had to hire foreigners to run things from waterworks to electrical company. But they have tons of money, so there's no problem.”
Brightwell said the country is basically three large cities with desert filling out the rest of the landscape. He stressed Americans have the wrong idea about Saudis, particularly how they treat their women.
“For one thing, Saudis have plenty of booze, they just don't do it publically,” he said. “With the women, there's a lot more to it. If you're a Saudi father, and you have this beautiful daughter and she likes the idea of going to America, do you want her hanging out when all these maybe-married, maybe-not businessmen?
“Technically, they weren't allowed to talk to me ‘socially' and I'm not supposed to ask them for a date, let alone talk to her outside the workplace. But they all have a lot of money. They fly to Paris, they fly to New York, so they actually have a pretty nice life.”
In 1986, Brightwell came back to Pennsylvania and volunteered as the IUP marching band's travel manager and announcer for the 225 piece band.
He organized appearances at the halftime of NFL football games. During his 14 years, the 200-plus piece band performed at halftime for the Steelers, Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, New York Jets and Cleveland Browns.
About 10 years ago, his mother became ill and bed ridden, so he moved back out east. She died just after Thanksgiving 2010 at age 96.
“She was sharp up until the end. We had a nice Thanksgiving dinner around her bed and she was laughing and telling jokes,” Brightwell said. “She and I would have dinner and watch Jeopardy. Around 10 p.m. that Tuesday, she said ‘I'm tired' and went to bed. She passed away during the night.”
Brightwell, who never married, still coordinates meetings for a Steelers fan club. Every Sunday during the football season, a crowd of 80 fans father in a separate room of a restaurant to cheer on the cross-state franchise.
“I'll bet a third of our group has never been to Pittsburgh,” he said. “When you watch a game, and the announcers always say Steelers fans travel well, I say ‘No, we couldn't find jobs in Pittsburgh and we're all living out here.' You'd be shocked how many Terrible Towels I've seen when the Eagles (host) the Steelers.”
Brightwell will continue to find – and create –that “winning atmosphere” he's known since growing up in the Mid-Mon Valley.
“There's a big marching band festival every year in Allentown, but it's never been televised,” Brightwell said. “I have a meeting with Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN), so I've been on the phone with some advertisers. In a year or so, I'd like to bring together all the national top bands and have them play in front of a national audience in a dome. That's my next big goal.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-684-2635.