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Dr. Gary Y. Iida

Music instructor, band director, loving father

Dr. Gary Y. Iida, a longtime teacher with the Claremont Unified School District and a staple of the local music scene, died peacefully at home on Friday, November 8, 2013. He was 71.

Dr. Iida was born on August 1, 1942 in French Camp, California. He grew up in Fresno, where he graduated from Central Union High School in 1960. A talented trumpeter and percussionist, he received a Bachelor of Arts in music from California State University, Fresno and then went on to earn both his master’s and doctoral degrees in music from the University of Southern California.

He shared his gift for and love of music with others as a teacher first at Nogales High School and La Puente High School. He spent the next 27 years at Claremont High School, teaching all aspects of music from jazz and orchestra to marching band, earning countless accolades along the way, including the Teacher of the Year Award.

“He was not one to yell at kids or get mad at them. Instead, he tried his best to be positive in all his comments,” former CHS drill team instructor Michele Allen shared. “He would say we’re going to work hard, but we’re going to play hard, too.”

After practice, Dr. Iida would often join the kids in a pickup basketball game or other steam-releasing pursuit. He had a keen sense of humor and was known to make a surprise appearance in the drill team shows in a zany get-up such as a fairy godmother costume, complete with combat boots and a silly, curly wig.

Ms. Allen led the CHS drill team for more than 20 years, including overseeing majorettes, tall flags, banners and rifles. With the band and drill team working side-by-side, she forged a lasting friendship as well as a professional partnership with Dr. Iida.

“We had a very unique relationship,” she said. “We could work as a team, which was very unusual in those days—usually you’d have the band director at the forefront and the drill team instructor off to the side. We really had a mutual admiration for each other’s talents and accomplishments. He was as edifying of me as I was of him.”

In Dr. Iida’s view, the band and drill team were a family. He helped judge drill team tryouts and involved the drill team in every band function, from retreats to parties.

Dr. Iida also became an important part of Ms. Allen’s own family. While the band and drill teams were hard at work, Dr. Iida’s three children spent hours with Ms. Allen’s five kids, forming a sort of Brady Bunch. Ms. Allen’s late husband, Dr. Bob, also became a close friend, often joining Dr. Iida in listening to opera or heading for USC football games.

Claremont High School Theatre Director Krista Elhai first got to know Dr. Iida when she was a student involved in productions at the high school and he was conducting the school musicals. Dr. Iida was still serving as band director for the first several years after Ms. Elhai returned to her alma mater to teach theater, and she loved collaborating with him on musical theater productions.

“He was an amazing art educator, but he was also so great about teaching kids about life as well as about music,” she said. “It was by example, not because he sat around teaching life lessons.”

Admiration for the charismatic band director is a family affair. Ms. Elhai’s brother-in-law, Robert Elhai—a film and stage composer/orchestrator who won a Tony Award for his work on the Broadway musical The Lion King—credits Dr. Iida with setting him on his career path.

When he was a student at Claremont High School, Mr. Elhai was an aspiring pianist who worked with Dr. Iida on musical productions. At one point, Dr. Iida suggested Mr. Elhai write something for the band. Mr. Elhai heeded his suggestion, eventually entering his first big piece in a local competition. He won first place and got to hear his composition performed by the CHS band in Little Bridges.

“That was the first time I ever heard anything I wrote for any kind of large ensemble,” he recalled. “It was pretty thrilling and got me to want to do it more.

Dr. Iida also served for some years as conductor of the El Roble Intermediate School band and it was there, as a student, that former El Roble Principal Kevin Grier first met him. Mr. Grier continued to take band from Dr. Iida all four years of high school and had the opportunity to work with Dr. Iida as a teaching colleague when he returned to El Roble as a math teacher.

When he later became principal, Mr. Grier also had the pleasure of dealing with Dr. Iida as a school administrator. Mr. Grier, now principal at a middle school in northern California, always felt privileged that Dr. Iida would give so much time to the Claremont Unified School District.

“We all felt he was someone who should have been a college-level conductor or working with symphonies,” he said. “He was the teacher that we had, but he was also kind of deeper as a mentor. He really knew how to work with our age group.” 

Dr. Iida had a way of getting his young musicians to “work hard if not harder than you ever knew you wanted to,” Mr. Grier said.

“He did a kind of a look where you knew you had just crossed over into the danger zone—that parenting look that says, ‘You just said what?,” Mr. Grier said. “But he also knew how to enjoy life. I couldn’t remember a day he didn’t find a reason to smile somewhere or laugh at something. That’s a great life lesson.”

Dr. Iida additionally taught at the college level, serving as an adjunct professor at both El Camino College and Pasadena City College, where he led the band in the Rose Parade in 1996.

He also served as an associate conductor for the Claremont Symphony Orchestra well into his retirement years. In later years, he often conducted from his wheelchair, particularly relishing the opportunity to lead his favorite concerts, the ones for children. In a recent tribute on the Claremont Symphony Orchestra website, Dr. Iida was noted for his musicianship and skill as a conductor as well as for his enthusiastic Elvis impersonations.

“Gary touched so many lives with his love of music, sharp wit and unparalleled kindness,” his family shared. “He loved his family, friends and students dearly. He will be deeply missed and remembered forever.”

Dr. Iida is survived by his daughter Michelle and her two children, Casey and Joe; by his daughter and son-in-law Tiffany and Barry and their two children, Joss and Bodie; and by his son and daughter-in-law Geoffrey and Tula and their daughter Chloe.

He also leaves his brother, Irwin, and his wife Jessica and daughter Stacy; his brother, Rickey, and his wife Rona; and his youngest brother, Dennis, and his wife Lee Anne and their daughters, Jennifer and Jessica.

A memorial celebration will be held on Saturday, November 23 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Foothill Country Day School, located at 1035 Harrison Ave. in Claremont. For more information, contact Michele Allen at allens@ca.rr.com.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to the Claremont Symphony Orchestra, PO Box 698, Claremont, CA 91711, noting the “Gary Iida Memorial CYSO Scholarship Fund.”

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