Tom Cook, retired Fort Atkinson High School band director, has been selected as the 2020 inductee into the Wisconsin State Music Association’s Marching Band Hall of Fame.
The honor comes after several decades of involvement in marching band and other musical leadership across the state and beyond, during which time Cook transformed the Fort Atkinson instrumental music program and guided his bands to repeat championships.
Cook, who retired from the Fort Atkinson schools in 2014, made an impact on generations of students here and through his prior directorships in Illinois and Prairie du Chien.
“When I came here, my aim was to unify the music departments to improve everyone’s performance,” said Cook, interviewed via telephone last week. “I wanted to see the entire high school music department working together, and then reach across the district to unify our music education goals at all levels.”
During his time with the Fort Atkinson schools, Cook built the high school’s marching band program into a top-flight state competitor. He also established an instrumental combo to accompany the district’s high-achieving show choir, strengthened the jazz program, and encouraged excellence on an individual and group level. Cook was nominated by colleagues for the Marching Band Hall of Fame.
The retired band director said he was surprised and honored to learn earlier this year that he would be the WSMA’s inductee to the Marching Band Hall of Fame for 2020.
“There are so many people doing amazing work around the state,” Cook said. “It’s very humbling to be recognized alongside them.”
The WSMA honor goes to individuals who have made a significant contribution to marching band activity in Wisconsin, in their own school music programs and beyond. According to the WSMA bio released along with the announcement of the award, Cook has played an integral part in marching activity in the state for decades.
“His work as an educator, adjudicator and WSMA Marching Band committee member has impacted thousands of students and fostered the growth of the marching arts in Wisconsin,” the WSMA announcement says.
Cook became involved in marching band activity in 1971 as a freshman at Rock Falls High School in Illinois. His older sister convinced him to join the championship Marching Rockets under the direction of Mid-American Competing Band Directors Association (MACBDA) Hall of Fame member Richard C. Davis.
This early involvement fostered a lifelong passion for marching band.
In 1974, Cook joined the Blue Stars Drum & Bugle Corps in La Crosse, enrolling in the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to study music education and march with the UW-L Chiefs, now known as the Screaming Eagles.
Cook received his bachelor’s degree in 1979 and began his teaching career shortly after directing band in Stockton, Ill.
While in Illinois, he kicked off that school’s marching and jazz programs, which finished several times in the top 10 of their class in IHSA Music Sweepstakes.
In 1984, Cook moved to Wisconsin and began leading the band program in Prairie du Chien, forming the Blackhawk Brigade High School marching band.
Soon thereafter, the band began participating in the MACBDA summer circuit and Wisconsin fall shows, with a culminating performance at the 1985 WSMA State Marching Band Championships. Prairie du Chien High School was awarded back-to-back Class A Championships in 1987 and ’88.
In 1990, Cook came to Fort Atkinson High School, where he immediately set to work bolstering the school’s music program as a whole.
“When I started in 1990, I had a role in hiring my assistant, so we were able to set off with the same vision,” Cook said. “At the time, we knew it would take approximately 10 years to build the kind of band program we really wanted to see.”
True to his prediction, the Fort Atkinson bands started earning state distinctions around a decade later.
“It took a lot of effort on the part of everyone involved — the kids, the parents, the booster program, the community,” Cook acknowledged.
The local high school long has participated in Wisconsin School Music Association events.
In 2003, the Fort Atkinson band placed first in the Class AA State Championships. In addition, the band finished in the top three in Class AA or AAA multiple times over 23 years of participation. Meanwhile, Cook’s jazz program earned national recognition at jazz festivals hosted by the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, UW-Whitewater and UW-Eau Claire Jazz Festivals.
In addition, the local jazz band program has won 21 straight Division I awards at WSMA State Festivals. The concert band also earned top awards. Other highlights for the band included touring England in 2008 and putting on multiple performances at Walt Disney World over the years.
Cook received his master’s degree from VanderCook College of Music in 2001. In addition to overseeing Fort Atkinson’s marching and jazz band programs, Cook also led the high school concert band and pep band, taught music theory, taught orchestral winds, oversaw the show choir combo and served as the school’s music department chair until his retirement in 2014.
As a Fort Atkinson teacher, Cook was nominated for the Herb Kohl Foundation Award and the Wildermuth Award. Other awards he has received include being named the 1985 Prairie du Chien Teacher of the Year, the February 2014 Rotary Educator of the Month and Channel 3000’s Top-Notch Teacher for July of 2014.
WSMA and WMEA presented him with the Wisconsin Award for Excellence in Teaching Music in 2014.
In terms of state-level involvement, Cook also is a highly sought-after marching band adjudicator through CSJA, MACBDA and WSMA. He also serves as an honors band clinician for conference festivals in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. He has served on the WSMA State Marching Band Committee and the WSMA High School State Honors Music Project.
One of Cook’s teaching colleagues said in the Hall of Fame nomination: “I’ve worked with many wonderful music educators in the past 30 years (but) none as fine as Tom Cook.”
Cook said that among his favorite memories of the local band program over the years was achieving the Jazz Band Championship at a competition in Branson, Mo.
“They (the Fort Atkinson musicians) just lit it up,” he said. “The energy in the air was unreal.”
There were many other memorable performances over the years, each of which has a place in his heart.
The retired Fort Atkinson teacher said he also has many memories of seeing his own children through the local school’s music programs, which made a big impact on them.
Cook said his son now teaches music at Central Florida University in Orlando.
Even after his retirement, Cook had remained very active in the regional music scene.
The retired teacher, who plays trombone and baritone as well as a variety of string instruments, had been performing with nine bands up until the pandemic hit.
“This pandemic is just killing the arts,” Cook said. “It will be a steep climb, but when we finally start to come back, I can’t wait to hear live performances again, whether as a performer or a member of the audience.”