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Mount Sinai Obituaries and Services » Richard Gigger, Jr.

Richard Gigger, Jr.

July 6, 1929 - November 13, 2016

Service Information Mount Sinai Hollywood Hills - TaNaCH Chapel

Service Date: Sunday November 20th, 2016

Service Time: 12:30 pm

Mount Sinai Hollywood Hills - TaNaCH Chapel

5950 Forest Lawn Drive

Los Angeles, California 90068

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Richard Gigger, Jr., a celebrated musician and educator who won numerous honors while inspiring generations to greatness, has died at the age of 87. Having learned to play music while serving his country in the Dachau concentration camp, Gigger, the grandson of a slave, went on to lead the U.S. Army Band. He then brought his talent, charisma and discipline to public education, turning an underprivileged high school in Southern California into a national music powerhouse. While leading the band and drill teams to 13 consecutive championships, he instilled the highest standards in thousands of students, whose ranks include many of California’s business, civic, educational and musical leaders. The City of San Fernando designated him a Cultural Treasure, and the Los Angeles City Council adjourned to honor his passing.

Richard Gigger, Jr. was born on July 6, 1929, in East St. Louis, Illinois. He was the son of Richard Gigger and Leola Hughes, and grandson of Sam Dosier, a man who once had been legally owned by another. As a child in an era when African Americans were barred from public swimming pools, Gigger swam along the polluted banks of the Mississippi River. One day, after ingesting toxic river water he developed a serious infection, and spent the good part of the next year recuperating. Being bedridden in one of the world’s most dangerous cities may well have saved his life. It allowed him time to study, and almost certainly time to dream of a better life. At the age of 16, he enlisted in the United States Army. Gigger was stationed outside Munich at the close of World War II. It was there where he met Klara Bloessl-Gigger, whom he went on to marry. In an unusual turn of events, he was offered a chance to study music at the site of a former concentration camp, an experience that would forever change his life. A gifted student, he developed into a virtuoso of wind instruments. He was invited to join the U.S. Army Band and soon was promoted to Band Director.

In the years that followed, he entertained military leaders and civilian audiences around the world, performed in film, on television, and live with singers such as Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, and Vic Damone. He served as First Alto Saxophonist on the Ed Sullivan Show and served as Drum Major of Special Ticker Tape Parades for worldwide dignitaries. He also was assigned to help provide the fanfare preceding nuclear tests in the Nevada desert, which were attended by celebrities and the President of the United States.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, he was also being used as a guinea pig. As he would discover years later, the Army was using “atomic veterans” – as he and soldiers like him later came to be known – in military studies focused on the effect of radiation on soldiers posted, with no protective gear, at various distances from atomic blasts. His army scrapbook is replete with photographs of mushroom clouds, and on the rare occasion when he could be convinced to recount his experiences, Gigger reluctantly described a flash so bright that, with his eyes closed, he could see the bones inside his own skull. Over the years, many atomic veterans contracted various cancers and other diseases, and Gigger did not escape the consequences of his own repeated exposures.

Leaving the Army after 25 years with the rank of Master Sergeant, he became only the third person to receive military certification to teach instrumental music to grades K through 12. He embarked on a career as an educator.

In the early 1970s, he met his longtime partner and second wife, Ellen Kaminer-Gigger, who like him was teaching music at Memorial Junior High School, in Willingboro New Jersey. They fell deeply in love and lived openly at a time when interracial couples were still a scandal. As a result they also faced significant adversity in their community. They left the East Coast for a better life, with Kaminer-Gigger’s two daughters of a prior marriage, and settled in Los Angeles. They continued to work together as substitute teachers, briefly sold real estate together, and finally landed permanent positions, again as music teachers, this time at San Fernando High School. They cultivated the school’s marching band and drill team and developed it into a championship machine, taking the annual Los Angeles citywide competition each year for more than a decade. They were known to their students as “Gig and Ms. G,” or sometimes as simply “The Team.” Gigger retired in 1996 but his retirement was short-lived, and lasted less than a week. He missed his students and teaching with his wife, and returned to the classroom within three days. Over 20 years he taught thousands of students, frequently multiple generations from the same family. He earned a reputation for setting the bar high, accepting no excuses, and insisting that his students strive for perfection. He also offered counsel to countless students about their personal lives, acted as a second father to many and, to some, was the only father figure they ever knew. His former students are a veritable who’s who of California leadership. Many followed in their teachers’ footsteps and went on to careers in education. Several became band directors and school principals. Others are business or civic leaders, who have been counted among members of the Los Angeles City Council. One is currently California’s Secretary of State. A vast number credit Gigger for setting them on the right course and inspiring them to succeed. The Los Angles Unified School District is preparing to dedicate San Fernando High School’s music building to him and his wife, and the school recently honored the couple and invited them to serve as grand marshal of this year’s homecoming parade. In 2005, neurologists found a tumor on Gigger’s pituitary gland, which they linked to his radiation exposure. Complications from the tumor and its treatment led him to suffer a brain bleed in 2010, which in turn led to dementia and ultimately to his death. In recent years, he petitioned the Veterans Administration for assistance but the exceedingly slow process left his application still pending even now.

Gigger’s life spanned a remarkable period in American history. He was born at a time of extremely limited opportunity for African Americans; the President of the United States was Herbert Hoover, who was described by the noted civil rights leader W. E. B. Dubois as an undemocratic racist who saw African Americans as a species of “sub-men.” When Gigger died, a black man was President. And that President’s administration has advised it is sending Gigger’s family a flag that once flew over the Obama White House.

Richard Gigger is survived by his wife, Ellen Kaminer-Gigger, their daughters Aimmee Hagler-Calvano and Zoë Hagler Marcus, his sons Richard Gigger, Jr. II, Terry Gigger and Jerry Gigger, sons-in-law Steve Calvano and Peter Marcus, daughter-in-law Rachel Zack Gigger, and six grandchildren, Sadie, Eli, Charlie, Greg, Alex, and Michael. A scholarship has been set up at San Fernando High School to benefit a graduating senior music student each year. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to “The Richard and Ellen Gigger Music Scholarship at SFHS.” The funeral will be conducted at Mount Sinai Hollywood Hills, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles, California 90068, on Sunday, November 20, 2016, at 12:30 p.m. A reception will follow at the family home.