Debbie Croft: Mariposa remembers beloved music teacher, band leader

In 13 years of working with the Grizzly Band of Mariposa County High School, Phillip Smith gave himself tirelessly to the students and to his community. The band members referred to him as “Inspirer-in-Chief.”

Following a lengthy battle with cancer, Smith died on Dec. 11.

Raised in Texas and Mississippi, he attended more than 10 colleges and universities. He held a doctorate in military history and a doctorate in music education with an emphasis on composition.

Smith served in the Army. As an infantryman, he was wounded three times early in his career. He then became a bandsman and continued in that role for more two decades.

He also served in the Army Reserve for 19 years until taking a medical retirement in 2011. His travels took him across the Midwest and East Coast as well as to South Korea, Japan, Panama and Europe.

In his military music career, he played an instrument and acted as section leader, group leader, band leader and arranger-composer.

Smith published 76 original compositions and more than 600 arrangements for orchestra and band.

He began working with students at the Mariposa Middle School in 1998 alongside Bruce Williams. When Williams accepted the position as director of bands at the high school, Smith accompanied him and became the associate director. Later, he directed the color guard.

Working with a limited budget, Smith often arranged the music performed by the band. This saved the school thousands of dollars by not having to purchase music. He composed and designed half-time shows and shared conducting responsibilities with Williams. Under his direction, the high school color guard competed for the first time in the San Joaquin Valley Color Guard and Percussion Review.

When Williams retired in 2008, Smith assumed the position of director. In the five years since, his dedication and inspiration propelled the band to statewide and national recognition.

The Grizzlies won first place in the parade of the 46th annual Selma Marching Band Festival in 2010. Also at the competition, drum major Melissa Caputo was chosen as the outstanding corps-style drum major. It was the first time in the band’s 75-year history that one of its members had received this award.

Then in June 2011, Sheila E., renowned rock band percussionist, arrived in Mariposa to make a presentation to the Grizzly Band. The Grammy Foundation, Best Buy, Ford Motor Company Fund and the Hot Topic Foundation had chosen the Grizzlies as one of the top high school music programs in the country. A Grammy Award recipient herself, Sheila E. presented the Grizzly Band with the 2011 Grammy Signature Schools Enterprise Award and a check for $5,500.

That year, the Grizzlies performed in New York City’s Veterans Day Parade.

Smith learned he had melanoma in 2007. In 2009-2010, he was treated for esophageal cancer.

Those who knew him well, including drum line instructor, Rob Fleener, said, “Even while on treatments, he still came to school.”

Two days before his death, he was in the band room – teaching.

Smith requested that all cards, flowers and gifts be directed to the Grizzly Band. The board of directors for the band’s booster club has established a scholarship fund for a band senior in honor of Smith. Correspondence and contributions should be directed to: MCHS Grizzly Band Boosters, P.O. Box 5008, PMB 340, Mariposa, CA 95338. To read more about Smith and the band, see

The memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Mariposa Cemetery. A reception will immediately follow at the VFW Hall. The public is invited.

On Monday, a celebration of life concert will take place at 6 p.m. in the high school’s Fiester Auditorium. The Grizzly Band and alumni will perform Smith’s compositions.

Known for a deep commitment to his family, Smith was married to Yong Song Kim for more than 30 years. The couple has two adult sons, Ian and Shawn. Shawn was a drummer with the Grizzly Band and a winner of the Sousa Award.

Smith was a founding member of the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra and its principal tuba player.

The orchestra’s 7 p.m. Saturday holiday concert will open with Smith’s “Elegy and Prayer.” This was written as Smith’s personal commemoration of the 9/11 attacks. For details about the concert, visit or call (209) 966-3155.

“He never wanted the attention,” Shawn said. “He wanted it all to go to the band and the students. He loved his country and his community.”