Tom "Major" Costa
By his daughter, Maria Costa
Tom and Mary Costa (1968)
My father, Thomas R. Costa, was born on the Lower East Side of New York City on March 22, 1918. He was the fourth of five children born to immigrant, Sicilian parents who sailed to America in the early 1900’s. Like most immigrant couples, my grandfather came to the United States before my grandmother to look for work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. He had been a sulfur miner in Sicily.
Dad attended P.S. 20 on Essex Street, then Dewey Jr. High School. The Costa family eventually moved to 55th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where they were parishioners in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. My father’s formal schooling ended when he graduated from St. Francis Prep High School.
Grandpa Costa played the guitar and banjo, and his three sons mastered a variety of stringed instruments: violin, banjo and mandolin. I remember Sunday trips to Grandma and Grandpa’s house with my family. After we all feasted on a delicious dinner of wonderful Sicilian foods, my grandfather, father, and uncles would take out their instruments and play Italian songs. Everyone sang and danced. It brings back such happy memories.
As a young teen, my father joined OLPH drum and bugle corps where he learned all the instruments he eventually taught. He went on to become drum major of the OLPH Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus Drum and Bugle Corps.
In 1937, at the very young age of 19, Dad was asked to establish and teach a parade corps at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel parish in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Its prime purpose was to combat the influence of “cellar clubs” which were breeding juvenile delinquency. Within a very short period of time, the corps went on to win many standstill contests in the Northeast.
In 1944, the Mount Carmel Cadets entered their first M&M contest and won first prize in Class B. Then came WWII, and many of the young men were called into service. The cadets then continued as a parade corps and competed in standstill contests.
In 1951, the OLMC cadets reorganized as an M&M corps. The 21 horns, three snares, three tenors and two basses sounded like a corps twice their size! My father, addressed as “Major” Costa by corps members, was their only instructor since the corps’ inception. He taught every instrument (fife, glockenspiel, drum, and bugle) plus marching; he arranged all musical scores; and, he wrote their drills. This was an absolutely amazing feat! Mt. Carmel went on to the American Legion Nationals in 1953, 1954, and 1955, placing in the Top Five at the finals–-something never matched by any other New York junior corps.
My father continued to organize, teach, and direct other well-known corps in the New York metropolitan area: Our Lady of Loretto; the Nativity Cadets; St. Helena’s Fife, Drum and Bugle Corps; St. Rita’s Brassmen starter corps; and, the St. Ignatius All Girls Corps who won the Girls Division Championship of DCI in 1975, the last year that division ran.
When my father first taught drum corps in the 1940's/1950's, his horn arrangements (similar to other arrangers at that time) were in basic three / four-part harmony; and most of the songs chosen were from the Big Band era. Hy Dreitzer, Carman Cluna, and my dad spent many, many hours at my house planning musical scores and drills for St. Ignatius Girls, The Brassmen, and other corps in between. Back then, I was a teenager thinking that these grown men were making a lot of noise in my living room... interfering with my listening to the Beatles, Stones and Moody Blues. If I were to envision that same group of men today, I would entitle it "Geniuses at Work". They really were at the forefront of a whole new generation of drum corps... more difficult and challenging music and intricately detailed drills.
On the personal side of his life, my father met my mother when she joined Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Cadets in 1940 and became one of his fife and glockenspiel students in the parade/standstill corps. She was 13 years old; he was 22. As Mom blossomed into a beautiful, young woman, she became drum major of the corps. Dad fell in love, and they married in July of 1948. I was born on Mother’s Day in 1949, my parents’ first child. Eleven children followed; ten of us survive them. Mom and Dad were married for 46 years until my mother’s death in 1994. Dad was an insurance broker and owner of a very successful agency. He specialized in life insurance, business and personal lines. His clients included Engelbert Humperdinck and the members of the IBM credit union.
Tony Vaccaro, one of my father’s students from Loretto and President of Drum and Bugle Alumni, wrote the following in “Tom Costa -– A Remembrance”: “One of his objectives with Mt. Carmel was to develop what he always referred to as ‘some of the top instructors in drum corps’. And this he did.
From that relatively small corps came Carman Cluna, Joe Genero and Robert “Pepe” Notaro who produced championship corps from the 1960’s on. Joe’s work with the Empire Statesmen produced the 1994 DCA Championship. All three men have been inducted into the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame. Many people from his corps went on to become important parts of the Skyliners, U.S. Marines Drum Corps, Hurricanes, and Hawthorne Caballeros. They are still active at the forefront of Alumni Corps and the resurgence of local corps.”
Tony continues… “In more recent times, at our annual reunions, he would take great satisfaction in getting updates on the personal career successes of many of his former drum corps kids. He would always make it a point throughout our playing days with senior corps to seek us out and let you know he was proud that you were still playing or otherwise active in drum corps. It was a reaffirmation of his influence as a teacher. His personal interest was what distinguished him as exceptional. He had the time to work with you on technique, but he took even more time and interest when you went to him with a personal matter or spoke about choosing a career. He also made it his business to stay informed on your personal careers and to let you know the pride he felt in your success.
Because you came from one of Tom’s corps, other directors welcomed you. They knew you mastered the basics, but they knew what kind of man you were. The legacy of his influence is well over and above the dozens who pursued drum corps activities, but the thousands who are still around today continuing his lessons of respect, dignity, striving for excellence and honesty. These are the lessons he taught most and best, and the influence is easily beyond what anyone could have imagined when he began with these kids. These well-taught and well-learned lessons were to become what we have passed along to those around us in our personal lives and the people we dealt with in our varied careers. He was highly respected as a true gentleman in our activity and because of him, so were we.
Tom Costa was inducted into the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame in 1981. His drum corps legacy is in the scores and contest results of his many corps – you can look it up. His true legacy is in being the teacher of thousands of kids, a legacy still being written. May God grant him Eternal Peace.”
My father died in January 2000 at the age of 81. He was Carman Cluna’s mentor and life-long friend.