It’s no exaggeration to say that Mike Skwarlo had music in his soul.
Music was his whole professional life. Skwarlo, of Egg Harbor Township, was band director and a music teacher at Mainland Regional High School in Linwood from 1966 to 1995.
Then when he retired, Skwarlo founded the Atlantic Pops Community Band in 1997. It was hard work for no pay, but leading an orchestra was a way for Skwarlo to stay active in music.
He led the band until 2003. By then, his wife, Jan, says he was already showing signs of the Alzheimer’s disease that he died of last month, at 75.
Even with Alzheimer’s starting its attack, Mike kept leading the Pops for a while. The band was his way to stay in touch with music, and music was a way to stay in touch with his real self.
Still, by 2003, Mike realized it was time to retire his baton.
“One of the indications (of Alzheimer’s) to him was his concentration when he was conducting,” adds Jan, a retired Mainland biology teacher. “He took the band very seriously.”
But after two years away, Mike went back to the Atlantic Pops as a trumpeter.
Mark Kadetsky, Skwarlo’s friend and the Pops’ director now, says Skwarlo came back joking about his condition.
“He said, ‘The good thing about Alzheimer’s is, I have no idea anymore who was mad at me, or who I was mad at,’” Kadetsky says.
The two met shortly after Skwarlo retired from Mainland, right about the time Kadetsky was hired to lead Egg Harbor Township High School’s band. Skwarlo volunteered to help, and Kadetsky accepted, happily.
“I had been a high-school band director for about 30 days,” Kadetsky says, “and he had been one for 30 years.”
In 2005, Skwarlo went to Kadetsky again, asking to play his trumpet in the Pops.
“He said he wanted to remap his brain with as much music as he could,” Kadetsky says.
To the end, Skwarlo believed in music’s healing power.
And after he died, his family didn’t have a standard funeral. There was just a memorial service — a few speakers and a lot of music, mostly from former Skwarlo students or local school band directors.
Frank Mazzeo, who played for Skwarlo in the 1970s at Mainland, now leads the music programs at the Pennsbury School District in Bucks County, Pa. Mazzeo played and gave a eulogy.
He remembered his teacher as a great motivator and a hard worker: “Mike was probably about 20 years older than we were, but he was outworking us when we were kids,” Mazzeo said.
Skwarlo wanted to lead a great band, but he believed music could shape lives, too.
“I think he felt it was his job to make you a capable young man or woman, one who could do things correctly,” his old student says. “And that’s really what a teacher does.”
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