Friends, colleagues remember ‘Pied Piper of YSU’
“Dare to be great” and “Love music” are two of the ideals Stephen L. Gage instilled in the musicians who studied and worked with him, and he influenced generations of performers and educators in the Mahoning Valley.
Gage, who taught for 28 years at Youngstown State University, conducted the Youngstown Symphony Youth Orchestra for more than 20 years and served as conductor of the W.D. Packard Concert Band since 2012, died Sunday following complications from surgery last month. He was 66.
Former students and colleagues talked about how talented he was, but even more than that they emphasized the quality of his character.
“I knew Steve since he started at Dana School of Music,” said Thomas A. Groth, executive director of the Packard band. “It was evident right away what a good human being he is, the way he cares for people, the way he nurtured them.”
James Umble, professor of saxophone at YSU, said, “He was an incredible mentor. He had a remarkable ability for knowing every student in the instrumental music program at YSU and keeping track of them during their four years. And in the case of the education students, he knew where good student teaching opportunities would be and good employment experiences for them. He seemed to have more hours in the day than anyone else. He was always in touch with former students and current students.”
A mutual colleague of theirs used to refer to Gage as “The Pied Piper of YSU” because so many of the students he worked with in the Youngstown Symphony Youth Orchestra or in an honors band would follow him to the university.
“They loved that experience and wanted it to continue,” Umble said.
Becky Yoho, who teaches at Shenango Elementary School in New Castle, Pa. and is a member of the Packard band, was one of those students. She joined the youth orchestra in high school and later attended YSU.
“He was a huge part of the reason I went there,” she said. “It’s hard not to want to go to a school when someone so inspiring and so amazing is a big part of that school. I feel like saying he’s inspiring is an understatement. He knew the
right words to say to make you want to be better … We had to dare to be great and, my goodness, he got that out of us.
“There are so many great educators in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, and we strive to do our best because of him, and we pass that on to our students. We realize he will stay alive through us and that passing on.”
Bob Antonucci, band director at Lowellville High School, already was in his fourth year at YSU when Gage started there, but he still made an impact on him.
“What I noticed about him is he was one of those people who saw potential in you that you might have seen in yourself,” Antonucci said. “I definitely felt that. He inspired you and motivated you to see it in yourself.”
Music was only one of the lessons he taught.
“He didn’t want them to be just good musicians, he wanted them to be good people, and he lived that,” Antonucci said.
Gage was a professor of conducting and director of bands at YSU’s Dana School of Music from 1993 until 2021. After retiring from YSU, he moved to Chrisman, Ill., where he was living at the time of his death, and he was teaching at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.
He guest conducted the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, the U.S. Army Band: “Pershing’s Own” and the U.S. Army Field Band and Chorus, and he conducted concerts in Canada, Ireland and 34 states. During his tenure at YSU, its Wind Ensemble made its Carnegie Hall debut and recorded seven CDs.
Gage had degrees from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Eastman School of Music and the State University of New York at Freedonia.
Groth said he hasn’t even started to think about how the Packard band will replace Gage as conductor. He last spoke to Gage the day before his surgery on Jan. 10.
“He said he would have six months of intense rehab and was looking forward to coming back for the July 4 concert with a big bang, so to speak,” Groth said. “There’s no timetable, just a series of guest conductors (booked through May) and we’ll see where it leads us.”
The W.D. Packard Concert Band plays its next concert at 3 p.m. Sunday at Packard Music Hall. Gage’s son, Brendan, originally was scheduled to play French horn at Sunday’s concert as a substitute musician. Groth said he is making last-minute changes to the printed program to memorialize Gage with plans to do a full memorial concert in the coming months.
Yoho said she definitely will need tissues to get through Sunday’s performance.
“I consider myself so lucky to be a part of that group,” she said. “So many went to school at YSU and then they moved on. I got to continue to keep working with him all these years. I just keep thinking how lucky I am that I got to keep working with him.”