For every handwritten sign that read, “Congratulations on your retirement!,” there was one that said, “We will miss you!” For every placard that stated “Best Band Director Ever!,” there were ones that read “Keep Fighting!” and “We love you!”
Retiring Ottawa Elementary Schools band director Guy Chamberlin received an enthusiastic outpouring of emotion and support driving past his Ottawa home on Second Avenue Friday afternoon – the parade included 83 decorated vehicles with two police cars and a school bus.
Chamberlin, a music teacher for 32 years and leader of the OES program since 1992, planned to retire after the coming school year, but a diagnosis of Stage 4 esophageal cancer in early May moved that decision up a year.
Later that month he was supposed to give his farewell concert, but the pandemic erased that tribute, so his friends, led by Terri McTaggart, organized a way to honor him under current COVID-19 restrictions – a surprise drive-by at his home.
Although he picked up on a couple of subtle clues, Chamberlin was taken aback not only by the event itself but also the magnitude.
“I didn’t see this coming,” Chamberlin said shortly after the final car had passed. “I am absolutely touched by this display of love and affection from former students, parents and fellow teachers that I just … had no idea there was that amount of love. I can’t believe it. I’m blown away by this.
“I’ve taught for 32 years and had hundreds and hundreds of students, and a lot of them just move on and you never see them again. Some come back once in a while to say hello. You try to keep up on their lives, but then some of them come back for something like this. It’s really touching. It really is.”
Chamberlin has been a significant contributor not only to the junior high program but the successful band at Ottawa High School, winner of 22 IHSA band state championships overall and 20 in a row from 1996-97 through 2015-16.
All of those titles have come while Chamberlin was getting musicians started at OES with the simplest of lessons.
“Lesson No. 1 for my students was always how to open the case, because if you open the case wrong, you have an instrument on the floor. That’s where they all started,” he laughed. “Seriously, about the band programs at Ottawa High School and Ottawa Elementary, it’s such a fantastic team. We all work well together. … The staff is so creative and hard-working and have such a passion for what they do that they can’t help but be successful. I am so honored and blessed to be a small part of that great team.”
It was tough for Chamberlin to give up his final year of teaching. However, he acknowledges he wouldn’t be able to do that and battle the disease.
Chamberlin has been undergoing chemotherapy, high-dose Vitamin C and radiation treatments for the cancer, which also has invaded his liver and lungs and robbed him of 40 pounds of body weight over about 10 weeks. Treatment, first for a month at the Mayo Clinic and then at the cancer center in Ottawa, has been effective enough that he experienced a victory on Thursday when he was strong enough to mow the lawn on his own.
That fight will continue.
“My full-time job now is to beat this cancer, and that really is a full-time job,” he said. “Between an hour and a half to this appointment and an hour to that appointment, we spend a lot of time in the car, but we’re going to keep hammering at this. This is all-out war, and my goal is to win. It’s only been since May, but I’m already tired of being a cancer patient. I want to be a cancer survivor.”
Chamberlin is not putting all of his curative eggs in that medical basket. He’s counting on help from his friends, one of them in particular.
“What keeps me going is my faith in God. My life is in His hands, and I believe He will make me well,” Chamberlin said. “I’ve had three doctors tell me that this is terminal, but I have faith … and I have a large group of people praying for me. That’s why I haven’t kept my diagnosis a secret. I want people to know so that my prayer base will grow … and you saw it today. These people and many more are praying for me, and there’s power in that, and I trust in that, and that’s what’s keeping me going."