It is hardly a secret that Dr. Destler is a fan of folk music – His banjo collection approaches meme status in RIT culture and his 1973 album “September Sky” is regularly circulated through the student body. However, despite all the student interest, Dr. Destler has been shy about performing for the RIT student body on campus. However, after years of interest and a popular PawPrints Petition last year, Dr. Destler finally performed to kick off FreezeFest 2017 before a packed Ingle Auditorium.
For the uninitiated, Dr. Destler is one of the “foremost collectors of antique banjos”. His collection ranges from the 1840s to the 1920s and contains dozens, if not hundreds, of instruments. He also plays the guitar, sings and writes folk music. He has released two albums, one in 1973 and a second 43 years later in 2016. According to Dr. Destler, the original album has gained a bit of a following in South Korea after being rereleased there a few years ago. His music is based heavily off the American folk traditions of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, taking influence from the likes of Woodie Guthrie or very early Bob Dylan.
It may be surprising that more than 500 college students showed up to a folk concert, let alone one given by a school administrator. However, this is a testament to how important Dr. Destler is to the RIT community. “I think President Destler didn’t realize how much students love him,” said Rachel Tasonni, a third year Diagnostic Medical Sonography student. “I mean he’s always on campus, and everyone always gives him a warm welcome, but I don’t think he knew the extent that students wanted to learn and hear him play the banjo.” This humble attitude was evident in the concert, and Dr. Destler seemed genuinely surprised to have filled the auditorium.
The show was a mix of original songs and covers of folk and early country tunes, reaching back to the 1920s. The topics ranged as well, from love and loss to a very well received number about “Alternative Facts”. He performed solo as well as in a number of duets with his wife, Dr. Rebecca Johnson. More than just a performance of music, the concert, titled “Songs for the Journey,” was a celebration of Dr. Destler’s decade at RIT. Many of the songs were about a journey of some sort, and the commemorative T-shirts listed many of Dr. Destler’s achievements from over the years.
It was a bit bittersweet, since Dr. Destler will be leaving the school he has called home for the past decade. ”A lot of the music was kind of sad,” remarked Eric Lee, 5th year Software Engineering student, “with a hint of nostalgia.” While the idea of Dr. Destler ending a journey is a bit sad for the RIT community, it was still a spirited occasion overall. The attitudes of the audience and Dr. Destler were upbeat, and it while a journey may have ended it was clear that another journey was beginning. The title of the show itself reflects this, being songs for the journey, rather than from it.
So what did people think of the show? If the thunderous applause and chants for “one more song” are any indication, it was a smash hit. “It was really awesome,” said Lydia Crow, 2nd year industrial design student. “I liked that it wasn’t super clean, it was really raw and open and honest, and that’s what music should be.” The energy in the room corroborated that statement. This was a group of students, faculty and staff who were there because they genuinely liked Dr. Destler as a person and a musician.
While we are going to miss Dr. Destler, the RIT community is looking forward to seeing what incoming RIT President David Munson brings. Although it is unknown if he takes any interest in the banjo, he is well-known for his Star Wars rap video from his time at the University of Michigan. If he is willing to carry the torch of RIT presidential musicianship, the RIT community would be forever grateful.