Naperville Municipal Band director Ron Keller passes the baton

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After 57 years at the helm of the Naperville Municipal Band, Ron Keller directed his final concert on Thursday, August 10.

“Yeah, emotionally it’s tough.  I was going to wait and retire next year and I had some health issues this past winter that kind of scared me a little bit,” said Keller. “And so I said, it’s time, but I look back and I can’t find a day that I didn’t like, that was either teaching school or with the municipal band.”

Ron Keller Commemorative Way

On Tuesday, August 15, the Naperville City Council honored Keller, presenting him with a street sign to rename Central Park Road as “Ron Keller Commemorative Way.”

“They say if you go out, go out on top and that’s what I’m doing,” he said.  “Thank you very much!”

Ron’s musical roots

Keller first appeared with the band in 1951, when he appeared as a soloist in junior high. He became director in 1966, after the death of his mentor, Elmer Koerner, but his connection with the band started well before he ever played an instrument. He grew up on Ellsworth Street, just a short walk away from the band shell.

“We’d buy a big bag of popcorn and we’d walk up into the park (for) the band concert,” said Keller. “I think I was about five years old, and we did that every Thursday night.”

His family is rooted within the band’s history, as Keller’s great-grandfather, Joseph Bapst was the director in the 1870s and 1880s. Both his mom and dad played in the band, in addition to his wife, and both daughters. 

Programming for the people

Through his programming of music, Keller created shows that everyone in town could enjoy. He says he had the same philosophy as John Phillip Sousa: to play the music that the audience wanted to hear.

“So I try to make the concerts with a lot of variety, something from Broadway, something from the movies.” 

He never cut a musician or told anyone they couldn’t play in the band, but instead demanded more difficult music. Eventually that led the band to be awarded the Sudler Silver Scroll Award from the John Philip Sousa Foundation in 1991.

“We’ve had a number of people play 50 years with the band, and all the ones that have had to move away because of either jobs or their house being transferred or whatever, all say they’ve tried other bands and they said there’s just nothing like Naperville,” said Keller.

Most band members come and go, but for Keller, one person has always been there. Ann Lord, the Mistress of Ceremonies, has been the band’s moderator for 65 years. Lord and Keller grew up as childhood neighbors and the two forged the Naperville Municipal Band into what it is today.

His final concert as director

At his final concert, Keller directed several marches he created that are dedicated to Naperville organizations such as the American Legion Post 43 and the Naperville Jaycees.  At the end, he passed the baton to Emily Binder, who first played in the band as a freshman at Waubonsie Valley High School and has been serving as the band’s assistant director.

“She has the same attitude that I have had and that is, we exist for the people that come,” said Keller.

What’s next for Ron Keller?

With more time on his hands, Keller looks forward to returning to another passion of his –  building model trains.

“I thought about the very first train layout I had,” said Keller. “My grandfather made a table out of a four-by-eight piece of plywood and I made a layout out of that, and I said maybe I could copy that. Just to bring back the old days with what I had when I first started. I’ve been fascinated with trains my whole life.”

He also plans to organize his music library, consisting of dozens of boxes containing everything from old music marches to different instrument parts he’s acquired over the years.  In his new Director Emeritus role, Keller will appear as a guest conductor from time to time and help the Naperville Municipal Band continue its musical magic. 

“To me, I hope Naperville realizes what they have here because it’s very special.”

For more of Keller’s story and the history behind the Naperville Municipal Band, watch NCTV17’s documentary, “The Band Plays On!”