A T-shirt hangs in the office of the director of instrumental music at Northland High School. "Got music?" it asks.

A T-shirt hangs in the office of the director of instrumental music at Northland High School.

"Got music?" it asks.

C. Rick Eckler certainly does, and over the course of a music education career that began after he graduated from Ohio University in 1980, the 51-year-old Lewis Center resident has sought to ensure that thousands of young people "get" it, as well.

Eckler, who has been band director at Northland High for some eight years, was named the 2010 High School Music Educator of the Year by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra last month. He and the Elementary School Music Educator of the Year, Byron C. Lockett of Ecole Kenwood K-8, will be formally recognized during a brunch on Sunday, April 11, at the Hyatt on Capital Square.

First handed out in 1997, the awards are intended "to give some thanks to people who really dedicate their careers to music education," according to Debra Rosenthal, director of education and outreach for the symphony.

Many have noticed Eckler's dedication.

"My son chose Northland HS exclusively because of Rick and the music program," band parent Jennifer Terry wrote in nominating Eckler for the award. "He is an inspiration to the students with his tireless work for the music program and boundless energy. He routinely goes above and beyond his job duties to make sure the kids have every opportunity to play and perform, even going so far as to put together events himself that feature his band kids. I fully believe he spends at least as much time outside of school for the program as he does during the school day."

"Mr. Eckler may not always be the most patient man on earth but he is always passionate about his work," Mallory P. Damron, NHS class of 2011, wrote in her nominating letter. "He helps my fellow students and me every day with not only band-related topics, but academic and social problems, too. I don't like to think of Eckler as 'my band teacher.' I think of him as a mentor who just happens to be an excellent music director.

"Being part of the band at Northland is like being part of a big family where Mr. Eckler is always at the head of the table leading us and guiding us through our differences and troubles."

Damron's mother, Roxann Damron, president of the Northland Instrumental Music Parents Association, wrote:

"We have worked very closely the last two years and I speak from experience when I say that he feels as if each of the students is his own. We actually considered not sending our daughter to Northland, but the program that this man has put together pulled us in, and we couldn't be happier."

The award, and the kind words of those who put his name in the running for it, have been both touching and humbling, Eckler said last week. He first learned he had been named High School Music Educator of the Year when he turned on his cell phone last month in Chicago's O'Hare Airport as he was on his way home from India after visiting a daughter who is studying in Madras. As soon as he was back in front of the band, he thanked the students.

"I'm the one who gets the name on the plaque, but they're the ones who earned it," Eckler said.

Eckler's career path
wasn't predetermined

That C. (for Charles) Rick Eckler, who grew up in Marion, should have a career in music is somewhat unlikely. His parents weren't especially musical.

"My mom struggled to play the radio, bless her heart," he said.

Eckler, who graduated from Marion Harding High School, credits his band director, Ed Miller, and orchestra director, George Lane, with inspiring his career choice.

"Terrific, terrific mentors," Eckler said.

Eckler said that he and a friend ended up walking to school several days a week with Miller.

"We'd just pick his brains all the way to school," Eckler recalled. "I said, 'I guess I'm going to be a band director.' "

After graduating from OU with a bachelor of fine arts in music education as a saxophone major, Eckler went home intending to begin seeking a teaching post as the summer went on. But a courtesy call to Lane, then director of music at Harding High, led to Eckler's first job as a teacher at Taft Middle School. His principal there had been his principal in sixth grade.

Eckler, the first member of his family to graduate from college, taught in Marion for six years before marrying a woman from Toledo and making a career switch upon moving to northwest Ohio. He sold outdoor advertising, first in Toledo and then in Defiance.

"Loved it," Eckler said.

A promotion for his wife took the couple to Texas where he continued to sell outdoor advertising, but this time around, Eckler said, he "hated it." He missed teaching, so he found a job in tiny Shepherd, Texas.

"It was a great little district," Eckler said. "Had a blast."

Another promotion for his wife, this time to her company's headquarters in Columbus, brought them back to central Ohio, and Eckler found work teaching at Delaware Hayes High School. He spent eight years there, but then the marriage ended in divorce, and Eckler said he again found a job outside of music education.

But a former band parent from his Delaware Hayes days, by then a teacher in Columbus, called Eckler to inform him of some openings for instrumental teachers in the district. She cajoled him into going for an interview, and four days later Eckler was back in front of a classroom.

"Never looked back, never regretted it for a minute," he said.

He worked in elementary schools that first year, but then was offered the job of concert band director at Northland High, putting him second in command to the much-younger Kate Fitzpatrick. Although he was more experienced than Fitzpatrick, Eckler told her that he had no designs on her job; he was content.

"I had a baton back in my hand," Eckler said.

Five years later, Fitzpatrick landed a fellowship offer at Northwestern University to pursue a doctorate degree, and Eckler assumed his present post.

Eckler, who said he knows all of his predecessors as director of instrumental music at Northland High dating to 1967, said he is honored to be carrying on the work that they started.

"This band is huge on tradition," Eckler said. "My job is to maintain the tradition."

That he is maintaining the tradition this year is quite an accomplishment.

Last year's Northland graduating class included 40 members of the band. That's more than most Columbus high school bands have altogether, Eckler said. The program this year only has 20 seniors.

"That's a lot to overcome," he said. "And they did it. They're doing it."

At a fall high school band festival at Ohio Stadium, Eckler said that his young charges drew stares as they maintained formation, even when getting their instruments out of cars. Then he realized why the students from the other, mostly rural high schools were paying so much attention.

"They'd never seen so many black faces in their lives," Eckler said.

The band is about 80 percent African American, he added.

Then the NHS band took the field and commanded attention for an entirely different reason.

"They performed extremely well," Eckler said, "probably one of their best performances of football season."