Ron Keller directs the Naperville Municipal Band for one last time

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“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 Naperville Municipal Band Director, Ron Keller. “And so I said, it’s time. And yeah, emotionally it’s tough. 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.”

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

Ron Keller’s history with the Naperville Municipal Band

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 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. 

How Keller shaped the band into what it is today

Since elementary school, it was Keller’s dream to lead the Naperville Municipal Band. When he first took the reins though, Keller says it was “just a typical town band.”

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

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 also grew up as childhood neighbors and the two forged the Naperville Municipal Band into what it is today.

Taking the stage one last time

At his final concert, Keller will direct several marches he created that are dedicated to Naperville organizations such as the American Legion Post 43 and the Naperville Jaycees. He’ll be joined on stage by members of his family and students he’s taught throughout the years.

“I’m going to be playing at my last concert,” said Keller. “I’m going to play a tuba with a gal in the tuba section that I started on tuba when she was in fourth grade. Her daughter now plays tuba and she’s going into sixth grade.”

Emily Binder will move into Director role

At the end of the concert, Keller will pass the baton to Emily Binder, who first played in the band as a freshman at Waubonsie Valley High School. Binder recently 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.

When the curtain closes for the final time, Keller’s reign of directing the band will officially come to a close.

He’ll move into a Director Emeritus role, participating as a guest conductor at some concerts and helping the band in whatever way he can.

Keller’s final concert will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 10, at Central Park in downtown Naperville. The public is invited to an open house on August 27, at the Judd Kendall VFW Post, at 908 W. Jackson Ave. Attendees can enjoy some light refreshments, and share memories with Keller and the band.

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