MILFORD, Iowa | Greg Forney claps his hands and taps one foot, the tempo growing faster as a saxophonist climbs the scale.

It is the last week of the last year of Greg Forney's 34-year teaching career. Forney, director of a jazz band that has won four state titles, attacks the music like a rookie.

"It seems like he's working as hard now as he did when I was a sophomore," says Austin Kolegraff, a senior band member at Okoboji High School in Milford, the school Greg Forney helped establish as a musical force in the Iowa Great Lakes and beyond.

"He's the foundation of our band program," junior Samantha Wuebker adds. "With him retiring, it's like we've lost part of our family."

Forney and wife, Julie Forney, the middle school director of bands at Okoboji, announced earlier this year they'd both accept the early-retirement package offered by the school district, a portion of the eight teachers doing so as the academic year comes to a close.

Greg Forney came to Okoboji from nearby Terril High School in Terril, Iowa, some 26 years ago. Julie was already at the middle school, prepping the musicians who would come Greg's way.

The trouble? Not many did, initially.

"When I came to Okoboji, we were going to have 78 in band and 13 of them quit just as we got going (that fall)," Forney says. "And then it dropped even more, dropping to 48 after one semester."

Forney, who had four jazz bands at Terril qualify for the Iowa Jazz Championships, seemed to have a reputation as a taskmaster precede him.

"I made them work," he says of his bands.

But, that's a total oversimplification. Forney also had fun with his students. He worked lessons about the bigger picture into his instruction. He knew there would be give -- and take -- with academics, athletics and other fine arts activities as teachers and coaches often competed for the same students.

"You have to teach," he says. "You also have to build relationships."

Forney's band program grew, reaching an apex of 85 students before settling back to about 60 these days. The jazz band, he remembers, claimed a third-place trophy in a local competition during one of his early years at Okoboji.

"The kids had never gotten a trophy before," he says. "They were ecstatic."

The jazz band earned a berth in the 1993 version of the Iowa Jazz Championships and placed 12th. In March, Forney's last jazz band unit appeared in its 21st straight Iowa Jazz Championships. The band finished second in Class 2A, trailing only South Central Calhoun High School.

Okoboji won state titles in 1999, 2000, 2010 and 2011. The band added an astounding six second-place finishes.

"The kids were disappointed this year after getting second place," Forney says with a slight shake of his head. "I told them to think if another team would have gotten to the state tournament and played in the state final and got second place. We'd be celebrating it."

Forney's point: It should be celebrated.

He's gone about his work all these years as a celebration of sorts. And while carting home championship hardware makes for sterling scrapbook material, it's the journey this educator cares most about.

"You earn your trophies at practice," says a sign at the band room entrance. "You just pick them up at the competitions."

Another sign, faded after 10 years of service on an office door he's about to close for good, means even more. He talks about the student who made the sign and how she's an accomplished professional now, working in a field she loves (it doesn't have to be music, mind you) and still showing the discipline she might have picked up, in part, at least, in this band room.

"I wanna be made... into a band geek," it says.

Okoboji's own "Music Man" steps back as if to take another glance at the sign. He soaks it in for a few seconds and then continues on his way to the auditorium.

"There's a concert tonight and one tomorrow," he says. "I have to get things arranged on the stage."

Just as he likely did as a rookie teacher, 34 years ago.

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