restricted access 4 - The O’Connor/Alexis Era and the Niu/Birch Creek Connection
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C H A P T E R 4 THE O’CONNOR/ALEXIS ERA AND THE NIU/BIRCH CREEK CONNECTION The advances this organization has made through this academic year [1985] with his [Alexis’s] help have been phenomenal. The University has been well publicized in Trinidad (where steel drums were invented) as a place that is fostering the development of the instrument at a faster pace than in its country of origin.. It would be a tragedy if he had to leave DeKalb because we could not match our competitors. I am urgently requesting your support in attempting to create a position for him that would give him access to our health coverage and a moderate stipend for his assistance to the organization. An offer of this type would be enough to keep him, his heart is at NIU. —Al O’Connor (1986)1 As of the fall of 1985, Alexis was a permanent member of the NIU School of Music staff. While his primary raison d’être was the instruments, both tuning and building new steelpans , he slowly became much more for the band. However, he was initially stymied by the fact that he did not have a full-time job. Together O’Connor and Alexis began plotting a new direction for the NIU Steelband and new roles for Cliff to play. As Instrument Repair Technician 2, Alexis reported directly to O’Connor for matters of oversight, administration , and promotion. As such, O’Connor made his best effort to always give Alexis superior ratings on his employee evaluations, which over time would incrementally boost his pay and change his job classification.Yet, Alexis’s position remained half-time throughout the academic year 1985–86. In an effort to make good on his promise of full-time work,­ O’Connor pleaded with the NIU administration to retain Alexis by any means necessary. C H A P T E R 4 34 School of Music Chair Dr. Donald Funes and Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts Stanley Madeja were sympathetic to O’Connor’s request, but the funds were not readily available. O’Connor knew he had to act fast,as word of Alexis’s success at NIU had quickly spread throughout the ranks of percussion professors nationwide, and many were interested in starting steelband programs, but lacked the expertise. The idea of having Alexis tune and build steelpans in-house at their respective home institutions was tantalizing, and when Professor Gary Cook made Alexis a formal offer to join the staff at the University of Arizona in the early winter of 1985,O’Connor’s search for funds at NIU took on a fever pitch.2 With his recent two-year assignment to oversee the facilities installation (chairs, tables, fixtures, and the like) in the new NIU School of Music building, O’Connor saw just the opportunity he was looking for and lobbied once again for support. This time O’Connor used Alexis in his new role as recruiter, and the diversity his hire brought to the faculty and student population of NIU, as the ultimate bargaining chip. In a memo to Dean Madeja, O’Connor wrote “He [Alexis] has already recruited several minority students for the department from his former school and I have received communications from potential students around the U.S.and even theWest Indies who are interested in attending NIU because of his presence here.”3 O’Connor’s urgent call for action was successful, and Alexis was appointed Adjunct Lecturer of Music by the NIU board of regents on a contract for two years at half-time. This new position of lecturer was to be held in addition to Alexis’s position as Instrument Repair Technician 2,and would require him to direct the NIU Steelband in O’Connor’s absence.In combining the two half-time positions, O’Connor had succeeded in creating the full-time position that he had promised.Alexis informed the St.Paul school district that his one-year leave of absence would become permanent and officially resigned his position in the spring of 1986. Of course, the irony of Alexis’s new position as adjunct lecturer was that from the time he arrived on campus at NIU,Alexis assumed the role of steelpan tuner in a manner much more conducive to the Trinidadian style of doing things. That is, despite being hired to tune and build steelpans Alexis had, from day one, actively participated in the direction...


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