At 6:45 a.m. on a chilly October morning, a thin layer of frost coats the metal benches on the football practice field at Hermitage High School. Stars still dot the gradually lightening blue sky.
Cold vapor billowing from his mouth as he walks along the practice field throwing down line markers for the Hermitage Marching Panthers, Paul FitzPatrick says with a laugh, "It's going to get a little colder still. It always does."
Within the next 15 minutes, about a hundred kids will trickle into the band's practice room, dropping off their book bags, picking up their instruments and assembling into a line outdoors to march to the practice field.
Across the adjacent parking lot, as if on cue, the school's Chester E. Fritz football stadium is suddenly lit from behind by a halo of sunlight that paints the white cinderblock stadium wall a golden peach. The stage is set.
While the rest of us are probably still hitting the snooze button or just stumbling to the coffee maker, FitzPatrick and the Marching Panthers are on the field, ready for the band's daily 7:15 a.m. practice.
FitzPatrick graduated from Hermitage 20 years ago, but since 1989, he's been volunteering for his former marching band. A 38-year-old computer guru who's done secret work for the government, FitzPatrick performs many functions for the Marching Panthers, most notably designing the band's elaborate field shows. Every morning of football season, he's out on the field, pointing out potential problems to band director John Sarvay and shouting instructions to students to keep them moving in the correct formations.
"Stand up good and tall! Stay with your column leader!" FitzPatrick calls out in a deep but friendly tone as he walks between the lines of students who are now running through the field show. By 7:20 a.m., with the sky now a hazy golden white, he and Sarvay are looking at position charts. They're discussing shifting a line to the left to give the students a little more room where two lines of marchers are supposed to meet and intertwine seamlessly. Right now, seams are showing; one or two students are straggling outside the line.
"We have a good relationship," Sarvay says of himself and FitzPatrick. "I'll come up with the music and the concept, and Paul is the person who actually makes it come into reality. He uses the computer program and creates the movements to match the music."
The software FitzPatrick uses, made by a company called Pygraphics, creates animated overhead views of the marching routines, with dots and letters in place of the students, looking like digital ants marching across the screen. "We often joke about how the students take my perfect little dots … and mangle them," he jokes. "The dots … make it look so easy!"
All kidding aside, the Marching Panthers have a storied history. A 22-time Virginia honor band, they have been ranked among the top-three high-school marching bands in the state for decades. A solid wall of the band's practice room at Hermitage High is stacked from floor to ceiling with trophies from competitions past.
In 1993, the band was invited to perform in the Tournament of Roses Parade (accompanied by FitzPatrick, then in college), and when Queen Elizabeth II visited the Virginia Capitol in 2007, the Marching Panthers were the only high-school marching band selected to play at the celebration.
On New Year's Day, the Marching Panthers will be heading to the Sunshine State, with FitzPatrick in tow, to perform during the Gator Bowl's parade and halftime show in Jacksonville, in addition to a field-show competition.
A bear of a man who has a self-deprecating sense of humor (his YouTube screen name is "fatboyfitz") and is quick to laugh or crack a joke, FitzPatrick started on this path while playing clarinet as a middle schooler at St. Bridget's Catholic school. When he enrolled at Hermitage as a freshman in 1985 and joined the marching band, Clyde Hughes Jr., the director at the time, switched the hefty young FitzPatrick to a more appropriate instrument.
"I remember pulling him aside one day," Hughes recalls, and I looked at the size of his hands on the instrument, and I told Paul, ‘You know, this instrument is really too small for you because your hands and your fingers are so big that you're struggling to manipulate the keys,' so I moved him to tuba."
A Hermitage graduate and a former member of the marching band himself during the 1960s, Hughes is a legend at the school. He led the Marching Panthers to numerous wins for 30 years and was honored by the Virginia General Assembly for his contributions upon his retirement in 2002.
Under Hughes' tutelage in 1985, the young FitzPatrick worked so hard at learning his new instrument that Hughes told him he'd be chosen for the district honor band if he kept at it. FitzPatrick lived up to that prophecy — less than six months after he first picked up the tuba. "Paul's work ethic was internal," Hughes says. "Whatever you said needed to be done, Paul was going to do it and more."
In the summer of 1989, right after FitzPatrick graduated from high school, Hughes asked the young computer prodigy to help him understand a new piece of design software for marching bands so that Hughes could use it to retool the band's field show to accommodate a larger incoming freshman class. FitzPatrick began coming back to volunteer every summer after that, designing the field shows himself from scratch and helping out at the annual summer band camp.
Twenty years later, FitzPatrick holds official credentials as a volunteer staff member of the Hermitage marching band. This fall will mark his 25th year as a member of the Marching Panthers.
A 1994 graduate of Virginia Tech, FitzPatrick was the top mathematics student in his class, earning a mathematics bachelor's degree with a minor in philosophy. To help pay for college, he alternated semesters between going to school and working for CACI, an Arlington-based defense contractor. At CACI, he solved problems similar to his marching-band work. Playing real-life Tetris on a big scale, he would figure out how many spare parts could fit on an Aegis-class naval destroyer, given complex formulas such as how likely a particular system was to require replacement parts over a certain amount of time, the cost of the part in question and available storage space. By taking a full course load in summer school, FitzPatrick was able to graduate from Tech in five years.
Today, FitzPatrick works for Chantilly-based Blue Ridge Networks — "manufacturing hardware devices for secure communications like virtual private networks" and performing other tasks that are too advanced for the average non-techie to understand. He still holds a federal security clearance, the result of occasionally working for clients at what he calls "three-letter organizations that don't get talked about."
His main hobby and passion, though, remains his work in the summers and fall with the Hermitage marching band. "His heart and soul is here," says Sarvay. "He's here for all our concert events, and if we need anything extra, he's there helping, just being involved, helping the program, working with the students. He gets a real joy from working with the young people in the group."
On a brisk Friday-evening away game at Freeman High in October, FitzPatrick is organizing the white-jacketed teens into columns, prowling up and down the lines like a military commander searching for potential problems among his troops, picking up a dropped piece of sheet music here, a fumbled drumstick there. As the band prepares to take the field, they file past a smiling FitzPatrick, who's bumping their fists and slapping their hands for luck.
Under the stadium lights, the band's instruments sparkle. Their blue slacks with red piping move in scissor-like unison as they work through the field show's repertoire of songs by Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire. Flags sway and trumpets and trombones bob in time to the tune of "Fantasy." FitzPatrick watches from the sidelines with an appreciative but critical eye as the interweaving marchers nail the change that he and Sarvay made in the field show during morning practices earlier that week.
Drum major Madeline Brissette, a senior, has been working with FitzPatrick since she was a freshman. "He's younger, and when everybody else on the staff is serious and gets mad, he's just more relaxed, and he's like, ‘It's not my job to be angry,' " Brissette says, dropping her voice an octave to imitate FitzPatrick. "It's his job to have fun, I guess."
During a morning practice in October, as FitzPatrick prepared to help herd the students from the practice room onto the field, he quickly whipped out one of his tree-trunk-thick arms to clothesline a young blonde girl from the flag line who was passing by, causing her to drop the textbook she was carrying. Spinning around, she punched his arm playfully, adding, "You jerk!" with a laugh.
That was FitzPatrick's niece, Kellie; one of the band's two flag commanders, she's the daughter of his oldest brother.
Family is very important to FitzPatrick and his wife, Darlene, and he admits that the amount of time he spends with the marching band in late summer and fall can sometimes be problematic, especially when his band commitments mean that he has to miss events with his wife's clan in South Boston.
"She gives me some crap about it sometimes, but she's generally supportive," FitzPatrick says, laughing.
"It was a lot harder when we were dating than it was after we were married," Darlene FitzPatrick says as she sits in the stands watching the marching band, "but I know he loves it, and that's what's important."
FitzPatrick met Darlene, director of internal audit for Bon Secours Health System, on Match.com in 2005; they married on "Cinco de Mayo of 2007 — I chose that date so I could always remember it," he confides. They plan to have children of their own before long, but for now, they dote on their nieces and nephews. They just celebrated the birth of their first nephew on his wife's side of the family, FitzPatrick proudly notes.
FitzPatrick has also built a family with the Hermitage Marching Panthers. He's close friends with past and present band directors Hughes and Sarvay (both of whom attended his wedding), not to mention the numerous boosters who love marching band like he does.
"It's like one big family," Hughes says of the marching-band alums. "People ask me from time to time how many children I have, and I say, ‘Well, thousands,' and they look at you like you're crazy, but I taught school for so long and I spent so much time with them in school and outside school, traveling to so many events, that it was just like they were our children as well." And hearing Hughes brag about FitzPatrick's accomplishments during and after high school, it's clear that FitzPatrick definitely qualifies as one of his favorite "sons."
Nevertheless, FitzPatrick maintains that he's just "a small part of the band staff," noting that Sarvay is the director and Hughes still helps out with the band, as does Hughes' former assistant, John Krebbs. All of them are former Marching Panthers. Many other Hermitage alums from decades past turn out to volunteer, too, Sarvay notes, with recent high-school grads often returning from college to help out with the summer band camp. But "they're in the earlier stages of putting in their 20-year commitment," Sarvay jokes. FitzPatrick's decades of volunteerism stand out from the crowd as much as his hulking frame does in one of the band's group photos that hang in Hughes' study.
FitzPatrick also aids in recruiting kids to join the marching band, which has become an issue these days. Not only do students have increased curricular demands and more after-school extracurricular opportunities than ever competing for their time, they're also less physically prepared to participate.
"The type of kids we get nowadays is changing," FitzPatrick laments. "Back when we were young, it wouldn't be uncommon for us to walk five miles to go to another neighborhood, just goofing around with your friends. … It wouldn't be uncommon for kids to have a game of baseball in your street. But you don't see that anymore because the kids are playing DS or Xbox. … Just running through a normal [marching routine], the kids can get winded."
At just under 100 students, today's Hermitage marching band is less than half the size it was when FitzPatrick was in high school. Hughes thinks kids are missing out on an experience that's helped prepare generations of Hermitage students for their adult lives. "Our students have always done well in college. … These kids interview better [for jobs], and employers know they they've been responsible and self-disciplined and that their attendance has been outstanding" because of their participation in the marching band. "I used to play with them and say to them that the only excuse for an absence is death."
And now FitzPatrick is helping the next generations of Hermitage students learn these same lessons. Beyond the sheer joy of seeing his hard work come to literal life on the football field, FitzPatrick says one of the major reasons he volunteers is because he gets a lot out of mentoring the kids and helping them realize their potential.
While some can be difficult to reach, "you encounter a good percentage who are really nice kids and one or two who are really special, and you're interested to see how they develop through life," he says. "They've got that spark."
It's probably the same spark Hughes saw in a certain big-boned computer whiz back in 1989.