For School of Music alum Scott McCullagh, the decision to set up a scholarship was equal parts honoring his past and securing the future.
McCullagh was part of a unique experiment in curriculum development at NIU when he arrived on campus in the fall of 1966.
“I was chosen for a special group of six young men and six young women from all over the state of Illinois,” McCullagh said. “We were chosen for our rich backgrounds in music, and the intent was that NIU had a committee that was trying to develop a new curriculum in ‘ear training.'”
Rather than the typical course of book study and master classes, NIU was part of a statewide project to develop a program that would be based on a strong focus on listening skills and the ability to compose or orchestrate and perform.
“They cheated a little bit,” McCullagh joked. “They chose 12 people who were already accomplished high school musicians. Every one was very talented. One of us had perfect pitch, for example. Still does, as a matter of fact.”
The 12 students became a group from day one and studied with the man put in charge of this exercise in new curriculum development, Dr. Charles Baker. It did not take the students long to settle on their moniker.
“We figured that hey, there are 12 of us, and we’ve got Doc Baker,” McCullagh said. “So that’s what we became. The Baker’s Dozen! We had sweatshirts and everything.
“We took all of our classes together, except for our applied classes. If you were a voice major you took vocal lessons. I was a horn major, so I took my French horn lessons. But with those exceptions we had the rest of our classes together. We studied music history and music theory and orchestration–everything together as that group. We became very close.”
Nearly 50 years later, McCullagh is still enthusiastic about his experience.
“It was an amazing time,” he said. “Absolutely amazing. I’m sure the others would tell you that, too.”
McCullagh earned both his BS in Music Education and an MS in Educational Administration at NIU, and served as the band director in St. Charles, Ill. for 33 years. He grew the program so effectively that by the end of his tenure he was responsible for bands at nine St. Charles grade schools.
“I just had a wonderful career there,” he said. “I can’t speak highly enough of my experiences. There were challenges, of course, like there are anywhere, but overall it was a terrific time.”
After his retirement in 2003, McCullagh began to ponder how he could give back. He established an annual scholarship in the NIU School of Music, and the name was a perfect fit. It’s the Baker’s Dozen scholarship. Beginning in 2018 a second Baker’s Dozen scholarship will also be offered.
“I’m very proud of the fact I graduated from here,” he said. “It certainly was a life-changing experience. I hope the scholarships serve an an enticement for students to come here and stay. Retention is very important.”
The Baker’s Dozen scholarship can be held by the same student for multiple years, helping them to persist through their program of study.
McCullagh knows that a student’s “break” can come out of the blue, because that’s what happened for him.
A graduate of Maine South High School, one year after Hillary Rodham Clinton, McCullagh’s break came while playing in the orchestra for the musical his senior year.
“It was ‘Kiss Me Kate’,” he remembers. “It has a wonderful horn part in it. A national high school organization chose us to give three performances of the musical at McCormick Place at Aerie Crown Theatre. It was amazing.
“My band director invited some collegiate band directors to hear our trumpet player, who our band director felt was really top notch. So, Gordon Bird, the band director at NIU, and Harry Begian, the band director at the University of Illinois, and John Paynter, the band director at Northwestern, all came to hear us perform.
“At the end of the performance, they came back stage–all three of them–and they walked right past our trumpet player and came to see me. All three of them offered me scholarships.
“I chose NIU because I loved Dr. Bird. He was a second father to me, and one of my closest people here. That’s how I got into The Baker’s Dozen. We took those experimental courses and didn’t use the same curriculum as the other students, and it changed and evolved as we went along. I know for a fact part of the curriculum that we helped create is still being used. Some of my kids went to the University of Illinois and, while a lot of it has changed, some of it is still being used there all these years later.”