But when COVID-19 postponed the band’s signature trip in 2020 – a visit to Pearl Harbor and performing tour of Hawaii – it took some hard work and quick thinking by local Walgreens team members to make sure the pandemic didn’t rob the students of yet another memory.
By coordinating and administering nearly 230 COVID-19 tests in a 72-hour period, team members at two Walgreens stores near Hortonville made sure each band member had a test taken and was cleared for takeoff.
Pride in service
At many high schools across the country, band is likely seen as something closer to a competitive sport than a charitable activity. Hortonville High School is different. For the past 33 years, Greg Forton has run the high school band to perform service, rather than focusing on competitions.
“There are so many bands who want to go to competitions, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong that, it’s just not our mentality,” Forton explains. “I’d rather have us represent our community, represent our state and give back to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. That means a lot more than a trophy to us.”
Ever since he first took over in 1989, Forton’s backed up his philosophy with his actions. Each year, the band’s reward for its hard work and dedication is a trip. Some years it was Disney World in Florida, and some years it was France, Switzerland or Italy. Students would save and raise money all year, looking forward to their world-broadening, end-of-year treat.
But it wasn’t until a planned trip to London was cancelled in 2001 that Forton realized what he wanted the true purpose of the trips to be.
“We were all set to do the London New Year’s Parade,” Forton remembers. “And then 9/11 hit. And everything stopped. We knew nobody would be traveling anytime soon, but we also wanted to make sure that, despite the obstacles, we were going to find a way to get these kids the trip they deserved.”
Because the budget was so tight – much of the money saved and raised had already been spent on non-refundable tickets to London – and there would be international travel restrictions and safety considerations in place, Forton knew options would be limited.
So he called an old friend who owned a tour company in Hawaii and made a last-minute pivot that would become a new Hortonville High tradition: playing at Pearl Harbor.
“When we visited Pearl Harbor that year, in the wake of the terrorist attack, we were all overcome with emotion,” Forton remembers. “That’s when we decided that we’d do it every four years and pay tribute to the sacrifices those brave men and women made by playing there when we went.”
And so, every four years, the band makes the pilgrimage to pay respects, performing at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial and, instead of facing the crowd of adoring fans onshore, the entire band faces out to sea, where the ship still lies hundreds of feet beneath the surface.
“We don’t perform for us. We perform for those who have fallen,” says Forton. “We’re not facing the audience because we’re not there for them. We’re there for the people who are still buried out in those ships underwater.”
Now, in 2020, another global crisis had postponed the band’s opportunity to serve – and in order to make the new date work, one year later, they’d need a little help from their community.
Forton was tasked with getting all of his students tested for COVID-19 before they would be allowed to travel to Hawaii – a potential logistical nightmare for a band with so many members. So he made his first call to a place he was sure could help him: his local Walgreens.
‘I knew we could handle it’
When Paul Reed, district manager in nearby Appleton, Wis., got a phone call from one of his store managers telling him the Hortonville High School Band needed help, he had a pretty good idea why.
“I live just outside of Hortonville and my kids go to high school there,” Reed explains. “Neither one of them is in the band, but everyone’s heard of the Hawaii trip. So even though testing that many people in that amount of time was going to be a big lift, I knew we could handle it.”
Reed enlisted the help of several local team members, including Tiffany O’Hagan, pharmacy manager at the 24-hour Walgreens store in nearby Oshkosh, and 20-year veteran of the company.
“Just talking with Greg and the students and hearing their excitement about being able to go on this trip, if we got the testing done, just gave me butterflies,” says O’Hagan. “It felt like a hometown pride thing at that point – we had to make this happen.”
With so many tests to do, Reed knew he had to be creative with his resources, so he coordinated the efforts between two stores, both within 10 miles of the high school, and made sure testing would be administered and results returned in time for all 227 people to be cleared to make their flights.
“If we didn’t get this done they weren’t going to be able to go,” says Reed. “And so for us, it just felt like that’s what we have to do. That’s what Walgreens does. We take care of people, it’s been instilled in us throughout our careers.”
Reed and the rest of the team made sure that every potential traveler was tested in time, boarded the plane, and even coordinated additional testing resources for the band at their destination, making sure one of the local Walgreens stores in Hawaii would be ready and waiting for any of the band’s additional needs.
A bunch of loose strings
Savanna Miller was in eighth grade when she first learned about the Hawaii trip, and it was something she’d be looking forward to throughout her entire high school career. What’s more, it felt like the timing was perfect that her senior year would be when she’d finally get to go.
But, along with the rest of the class of 2020, Miller’s best laid plans had gone awry due to a global pandemic and the subsequent school closures.
“When it all started in March, everyone was saying, ‘Oh, we’ll be back in two weeks,’ and, ‘This won’t last long,’” Miller remembers. “But I just had this gut feeling that it would be a lot longer.
“When everything got cancelled, it was all so disappointing for me, but losing this trip was the big one. This was the highlight I’d waited for, and saved money for, for years. It was supposed to be my last hurrah. Instead, I got no graduation, I got whisked away to college and I just never really got an endpoint to high school. It just felt like a bunch of loose strings.”
Forton knew how much this trip meant to all his students – but especially the graduating seniors. So he made a special effort to reach out to all of his graduates from the class of 2020 and invite them on the rescheduled trip, taking the place of this year’s freshmen, who will still be able to go when they are seniors.
“It was such an amazing feeling to get that call,” Miller remembers. “And getting to come back and reconnect with everyone was such an added bonus. Band was a family, and it meant the world to me to experience that with all of them and have a proper goodbye to a major part of my life.”
Until we meet again
On the group’s final night in Hawaii – after days of performing, paying respects, exploring the island and bonding as a group – Forton gathered the students together and gave them a commencement speech of sorts.
What he told them that night had to do with the meaning of the word ‘aloha.’
“We all know ‘aloha’ means both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’ and it also means ‘I love you.’ But the part about it that a lot of people don’t realize is that how you say it matters, too,” Forton recounts. “You’re supposed to say it face-to-face and eye-to-eye. We couldn’t do that over the phone or on a video chat. We had to say it together. I got to tell all of my students ‘aloha’ properly, thanks to the great work of the people at Walgreens.”