For 27 years, Roger Hewitt directed more than 80 musicians in the Over 55 Show Band and Snow Bird Band at Polk State College, where they’d perform to audiences that filled the Winter Haven Campus’s 500-seat theatre.
He also served as an adjunct instructor, teaching Humanities and Music Appreciation, and directing the Polk State Jazz Band.
Hewitt was well known for his high expectations of band members, who referred to him as “fearless leader,” and he did all of this in retirement.
Hewitt passed away on Jan. 29 at the age of 87.
“He really put Polk State College on the map. The performances were huge and brought a lot of people to the College, introducing them to the campus, the programs, and the opportunities available to them at Polk State.”
— Sharon Bevis, former Polk State colleague
“He really put Polk State College on the map,” former colleague Sharon Bevis said. “The performances were huge and brought a lot of people to the College, introducing them to the campus, the programs, and the opportunities available to them at Polk State.”
Hewitt joined the College in 1988 after moving to Florida from his native Illinois, where he earned a bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University and a master’s degree from Western Illinois University and studied Education and Music. He also served in the U.S. Air Force, playing in the Air Force Band.
Wanting to give other retired musicians and music educators a place to play, in 1988 he put out a call for auditions for a big band, which received an overwhelming response he had not anticipated.
Thus, Hewitt created the Over 55 Show Band for permanent residents and the Snow Bird Band for winter residents, which eventually merged with the Over 55 Show Band. The band played at Polk State for free, receiving such a large response that a ticketing system had to be put in place to manage the crowd. Bevis, who worked with the Polk State College Foundation at the time, found the responsibility of managing tickets on her desk.
“Roger didn’t want anyone to miss out, so he didn’t want to charge for tickets, but we eventually had to start charging to help control the crowd,” Bevis said. “Part of the proceeds ended up going to scholarships for students, which Roger was very passionate about. He loved his students and he was very diligent about teaching.”
James Sharp, Polk State’s Theatre Technician, echoed a similar sentiment about Hewitt’s dedication to the students and music education.
“Roger would be the first person to tell you that it was not just about jamming out,” Sharp said. “It was also about doing your homework, reading the music, and honing your skills – that was really important for him to instill in his students and band members.”
Members of the Over 55 Show Band can attest to that.
Trumpet player Fred Knippenberg and drummer Darryl Johnson played with Hewitt for decades and agreed that when it came to music, there was no fooling around for Hewitt, who was an otherwise easy-going guy.
“Roger would light up every chance he would get to bring music to life for others.”
— Katy Hewitt, Polk State adjunct professor and Hewitt’s wife
“He made us better musicians,” Knippenberg said. “If it wasn’t for Roger, I wouldn’t be playing today.”
Hewitt was Johnson’s band director for 30 years and taught him that “real drummers read.”
“Roger had a huge influence on me. He inspired me so much that I began teaching myself,” Johnson said. “Roger was a father figure to every student who took his class, and class wasn’t band practice it was band rehearsal, meaning he expected his students to come in ready to play.”
Many describe Hewitt as a taskmaster, powerful recruiter, and diligent teacher.
“The greatest thing Roger passed down to me was to keep passing it down,” Johnson said.
Hewitt’s wife, Katy, agreed that there was nothing her husband enjoyed more than teaching music.
“My son’s fondest memory of Roger is watching him teach his granddaughter, Emma, guitar,” she said. “Roger would light up every chance he would get to bring music to life for others.”
And with the Over 55 Show Band still bringing big-band music to life for big crowds four years after Hewitt stepped down as director, his influence continues to be felt by many who enjoy weekend performances at Polk State’s Winter Haven Theatre.
“Roger has certainly left a legacy that is going to be felt here for a very long time.”
— James Sharp, Polk State Theatre Technician
“Roger has certainly left a legacy that is going to be felt here for a very long time,” Sharp said. “His creation of the Over 55 Show Band has kept the big-band sound alive not only for the musicians but also for our students and the community.”
Hewitt is survived by his wife, Katy, who is an adjunct professor with the College, as well as his daughters, Lisa and Valerie Hewitt; stepdaughter, Babette O’Brien; stepson, Dallas Twiford; and grandchildren, Rachel and Shayna Spiwak, Corey, Connor, and Jessie O’Brien, and Emma and Dallas Twiford, Jr.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for donations to the Polk State College Foundation in Hewitt’s memory. Donations may be made online at foundation.polk.edu/music.