Gerri Buccini, 75, a devoted family man, educator, musician, sports supporter, and card shark, never tired of praising his adopted hometown and sharing his passion for life with people living here.
Whether teaching prepositions in English class, performing with the St. Albert Community Band for Queen Elizabeth, or dealing blackjack at Century Casino during retirement, Buccini journeyed through life with a cheery smile. Simply put, he naturally lit up the lives of people around him.
“He was a gatherer. He liked gathering people together. He was all about introducing people, and watching people at a party and making sure they were not alone,” said daughter Andrea Daly. “He was a community builder, whether coaching kids or playing in the band. He had to bring people together.”
Buccini had intelligence, a shy charisma, good looks, idealism, the courage to take risks, and a strong sense of honour. Although some consider honour an old-fashioned concept, it was part of his world view, one he put into practice daily in dealings with people around him.
The circumstances of Buccini’s death were tragic. He passed away June 1 after a two-year battle with mesothelioma, a cancer in the lining of the lungs caused by asbestos exposure.
Buccini’s primary focus was teaching, working 35 years at St. Albert Public schools before retiring in 2005 at age 58. He taught at Sir Alexander Mackenzie Elementary and Lorne Akins Junior High before spending the last 23 years of his career sharing the role of vice-principal/teacher at William D. Cuts Junior High.
“He was offered the position of principal multiple times, but he refused. He wanted to stay connected with kids,” Daly said.
“He wanted to keep in touch with what was important in education,” said Buccini’s wife Anne, who was also employed in a dual position as teacher/librarian with the Edmonton Public School Board, and now works exclusively for the St. Albert Public Library. "He was very much a people person, and loved kids."
Despite a schedule filled with long days, Buccini was also responsible for many extraordinary accomplishments outside the class. In 1970, he co-founded the St. Albert Community Concert Band with a team of dynamic, community-minded men including Jerry Wennes, John Kaminski, and William Cuts.
His other contributions included two stints as Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus, President of Sir George Simpson Music Society, School Reach coach, and tournament moderator, as well as his son Tony's baseball coach.
“He needed to keep busy. He was a very organized person. That’s what made him so good at his job. But he wasn’t fond of technology. If he could avoid technology, he would avoid it if possible,” Anne explained.
Former mayor Nolan Crouse presented Buccini with the golden Keys to the City at the St. Albert Community Band’s 40th anniversary concert. Crouse noted that the Key to the City is a symbolic representation recognizing individuals who invest a great deal into building the community.
“Gerry was committed to education, and he was a long-serving band president. He was a community builder and without Gerry, the band would probably not have continued as long as it has. He was a leader in education, music, the community, and he was influential in the Knights of Columbus,” Crouse said.
The former politician laughs when he recalls a memory of his first meeting with Buccini.
“He was vice-principal of Cuts when my son got into a fight with another boy at school. He was very gracious about it, and how he treated the boys. He was so kind and caring, even though the fight took place off school property after school hours. I believe because of how he treated them, the boys ended up becoming fast friends and later played hockey together.”
As an educator, Buccini gave his students a special gift. He inspired youth to realize their capacities are limitless, and that future problems, no matter how hard, could be solved.
Upon the announcement of his death, online accolades and well-wishes to the family poured in from across North America. Many friends, colleagues, and former students shared inspirational memories, and many were written with reverence given to a natural leader.
Buccini, always very proud of his Italian heritage, remained grounded in the importance of family.
“He was such a family guy. He was well-known as a teacher and band president, but family was the centre of his universe. He was his grandchildren’s number-one cheerleader. He went to every recital and awards night. If the kids were featured in a big way, he was there,” said Daly.
Born in Calgary in 1946, the Buccini family moved to Trail, B.C. when he was a toddler, after his father found employment at a smelter. John D’Arcangelo, Buccini’s best friend from Grade 8, described him as a go-getter.
“Gerry was always outgoing, happy, and he knew a lot of people. He was a fun guy,” D’Arcangelo said. “He was fanatical about baseball and hockey, and he was a big hockey fan of Jean Béliveau. He was an athlete, good and fair in sports. He enjoyed music. Anything he did, he did extremely well. There was never a dull moment. Gerry was an achiever.”
As a teenager, Buccini taught himself to play the clarinet and was part of two bands: The Underwear Band that performed at the Trail Smoke Eaters hockey games, and later with the Trail Maple Leaf Band.
Buccini also enjoyed playing baseball, curling, and golf.
“Once we were on the golf course and I heard a yell,” D’Arcangelo said. "I later found out he scored a hole-in-one. It was a real achievement. Not many people get a hole-in-one.”
Both D’Arcangelo and Buccini indulged in a shared passion for Vegas shows and would fly south for weekend trips. Buccini saw artists that ranged from Elvis, the Beatles, Sammy Davis, and Liza Minnelli to Dean Martin, Wayne Newton, Red Skelton, and Johnny Carson.
After high school, Buccini moved to Edmonton in 1965 where he met Anne Krzywkowska at the University of Alberta. He was in the University of Albert Concert Band and the University of Alberta Marching Band.
“He wanted me to join the marching band. I could play the piano, but I didn’t have a brass or woodwind instrument. So, he lined me up with a glockenspiel,” laughed Anne. “He was gregarious and that appealed to me. I was much shyer.”
The couple married July 4, 1970, the same year Buccini agreed to become president of the newly-formed St. Albert Community Band and created the band motto “Music is for life.”
“It was an opportunity for adults to practice what they learned as children. He liked the idea of continuing to learn through music. He encouraged young people to join. It started with 25 members. Currently there are about 70, and at one point there were 83,” Anne said.
The band’s first concerts were held on a covered bandshell in Lions Park and in schools. When the Arden Theatre was built, the band was the first act to perform in it.
“Gerry was so excited. They had never sold out a show before.”
Derek Chaston, who plays tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, joined the band three years after its formation. He described Buccini as someone who encouraged musicians to keep taking those small important steps to keep improving.
“Generally speaking, I was not good at reading music, but I had a lot of encouragement from Gerry,” said Chaston, who added there was a void when Buccini retired from the band.
Dale Rokosh, who played the tuba in the band’s early years and later joined Buccini playing for Edmonton School Boys Alumni Band, first met his mentor in the 1970s at Lorne Akins Junior High as a parent visiting his daughter’s teacher.
“He encouraged younger people to join after high school to continue their enjoyment of music, and he encouraged some in their 70s and 80s. The musicians enjoyed socializing as a group, but they also took trips out of province on a cruise up to Alaska and on a trip to Europe,” said Rokosh.
“He was band president for 40 years. He was an anchor because he developed it from the start. He told me he struggled with music, but that didn’t stop him. He was a fighter to the end.”
Not only did Buccini build a career. He built a legacy that will endure through the people he inspired. Whether it was personal charm, timing, luck, or old-fashioned ingenuity, he was a man able to get people motivated when they needed it most.