Youngstown Connection

Art's Note
One desire of mine for the best five was to put this web page together. It only took a little motivational occurrence to really get me going. That happened on a cold scary Friday in December 2000 when I received a phone call from my mother who broke the tough news. Our beloved director, Dr. Carol Baird, had been in a car accident travelling on her way to a performance.

After all the damage was assessed, it was evident the good Lord still wanted her around for a few more years on earth. Punctured lungs, internal bleeding, kidneys 70% destroyed, broken ribs…the list goes on. So, the least I could do to help brighten her day was make a web page with pictures, the history and the current schedule (all coming soon!).

Please especially keep Dr. Baird in your prayers, as she has been going back and forth from intermediate to critical care. We will update her progress periodically on this site.

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"We are the Youngstown Connection,
Twelve students chosen from our Youngstown City Schools.
We salute you, and bring a message of peace, love
And the most important element of all, brotherhood."

Those words have been announced for over eleven years now around the Youngstown, Ohio area by a group of twelve black, white, and Hispanic kids, along with their little while lady director, Dr. Carol Baird.

It all started twelve years ago with a dream. At the time, Dr. Baird, who was the head of the creative and performing arts department for the Youngstown City School District, didn't know what to do with it. She had dreamt of creating an all school district choir that transcended the racial lines that so harshly divided the Youngstown City Schools. The group would be made up of the most talented twelve students in the district. The message they would sing consisted of racial harmony, that was so desperately needed in the Mahoning Valley, of hope, for a generation that was given no chance of surviving, and of peace, which at that time the world lacked.

Finally succumbing to the overwhelming burden she was given, Dr. Baird found twelve students ranging from freshman to seniors in high school. These students were given the first task of striving for absolute excellence interwoven with a message. Now the two were inseparable. With just a message, the Youngstown Connection would sound like any average church choir that never really got your attention. With just excellence, the Connection would be like other quality high school show choir that was all style but no substance. But with the both, something powerful was unlocked. The music, the dancing, the acting would all amplify the message. These kids weren't just singing about something, they were good! And it wasn't just kids singing about breaking down the walls of segregation. It was kids breaking down the walls of segregation.

The power that was unleashed was unlike anything the Mahoning Valley had ever witnessed. Audience members would break down in tears as they not only saw and heard the message; they would feel the message and be convicted of past prejudices. Area politicians, business leaders and community powerbrokers were stunned that anything good could come out of the Youngstown City Schools- and then wanted to see the group for themselves. Students in the group who had no hope of graduating, let alone going to college, suddenly saw the potential in themselves to be excellent in all they do, and went on and graduated from college.

First, the group performed around the Mahoning Valley at various public events, banquets and celebrations. Getting a date on the Connection calendar wasn't difficult. The group was new, and the reputation of the group was just taking off the ground.

People didn't always remember the name but they remembered the costumes- black tuxedos with tails, a shiny red cumberbund and a shiny red bowtie. The thing that most people remembered were the gloves. Right before the performance, Dr. Baird would give the go-ahead to put on the gloves- red on the inside palm, white on the outside. The gloves would show any mistake on stage, but would also highlight the precision of a complex hand move as the Connection danced. The gloves were a Connection original, and no other show choir would dare copy. Losing your gloves was a major offense. Coming to a performance with dirty gloves was punishable by a tongue lashing by Dr. Baird. You never wanted to be on the little lady's bad side.

The group would set a practice standard unlike any other. Still to this day the practices are still the same, Saturday from 3:30pm - 6:30pm, Wednesday from 3:30pm - 6:30pm/7pm. Those times were sacred and were never to be missed. Those were the group's time. An individual was expected to practice his or her own moves on his or her own time. The practices were set aside for bringing everything together. Excellence was the name of the ballgame. Even the slightest variance from perfection endured the wrath of Baird. Many a night a student would go home upset or in tears, vowing to quit the group because of the mean lady. But that same student would always come back the next practice, prepared not to make the same mistake.

Because of the intense environment and great commitment, the members of the Connection often became very tight. Best friendships were formed. New family members were created. It wasn't uncommon to see the group hanging out on a Saturday night at a movie. This tightness eventually worked its way on stage. Members knew other members so well that one member could predict another member's next move, causing numerous ad-libbed routines. It wasn't uncommon for a member to veer out into the audience, as the other members would fill in his or her gap in the blocking. Many times one guy would jump into another guy's arms, having only been planned a few seconds ahead of time. The possibilities at a performance were endless.

In just their first year of existence, the Connection received one of the highest honors in the nation for a choir -they were invited to sing at freedom festivals going on all around Germany, and to top it off would sing at the then recently toppled Berlin Wall. What a way to kick off the group!

As the fame and as word of the group spread, getting a date on the Connection calendar became much more difficult. Performances by the group were scheduled months in advance. The message was being heard. The songs of the Connection really varied from group to group, but the core always remained the same. There were classic jazz songs, Broadway show tunes, modern songs of peace, big band numbers, and many more. When a song was played, there was an instant feeling to as whether it was a "Connection song" or not.

Three years later, in 1992, the group was given another high honor. Barcelona, Spain was holding the Summer Olympics, and they captivated the world spotlight. The group was invited to perform at the World Expo being held there in the summer. It was the second international trip in thee years for the group- what more could the future hold?

In the fall of 1992, many of the original group members had graduated. Despite the loss of those immensely talented members, more troubling was the potential loss of the message. Dr. Baird looked far and wide throughout the district, finding the students who would fit perfectly in the group, not necessarily replacing the old members, but creating new niches.

In the fall of 1993, Dr. Baird had a daunting task ahead of her, replacing six members of the group, the most she ever had to replace. With a new crop of five new guys, especially wet behind the ears, the highest honor was bestowed upon the group up to the current time. The Youngstown Connection was invited as the only group from the state of Ohio to perform at the 50th anniversary of the Invasion of D-day around Paris, London and Normandy. Before the largest crowd amassed at one of the celebrations, 10,000 Frenchmen watched on as 12 American kids performed. The language barrier was non-existent that night, as the French people warmly welcome the Connection, knowing exactly what they were singing about. The Connection also performed at a Memorial Service at the American Cemetery at Pont du Hoc (the place with all the white crosses and stars of David). At the performance, a certain young lady was so impressed with the group, that she invited them to sing at her own event. That woman was Gen. George Patton's granddaughter, and she had the group sing at a dedication for her grandfather and a banquet at her estate! International fame had come to the Connection!

While within that time, the group also started a long string of consecutive performance with the organization America Sings! at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Every year since 1993 the group has been front center, starting the parade. You can even see a giant picture of the group at the Macy's Visitor Center in New York City from the 1995 Parade!

In the fall of 1995, with only days to prepare the details, the Youngstown Connection was honored with a chance to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Each Senator was given a choice of what group or performer, professional or otherwise, they would want to represent their state at the 25th Anniversary Celebration taking place the fall months. Each group would perform before a show at the Center. Sen. John Glenn, who last spring had saw the Connection in Youngstown, picked them as his choice. This fall was especially unkind to the Connection, as six new students were entering the group. They were unprepared to perform at such a prestigious event, so Dr. Baird called all the recent graduates at their respective colleges around Ohio, and flew them into DC. Dr. Baird ranked it as one of the best performances ever.

While the Connection was performing all around the country and world, in 1993 Dr. Baird decided to tap into the resources a younger crowd of Youngstown City School students. The talent level of the school district at that age was rising, and she wanted to insure they would not veer off into sports, other clubs, or worse, out of the school district. So in the spring of 1994 the Junior Connection performed their first show at the "Walk on Wick" celebration. The Junior Connection was made up students in elementary and junior high schools around the city. They wore black pants, a red tuxedo shirt and a black bow tie. At this point the Connection was swamped with performances, doing up to 70 a year! If the Connection was not available, many times the Junior Connection was there to fill in the gap and perform for them.

Around this time, the songs of the Connection became almost trademarked as "Connection songs." Certain ones never actually left the 40-minute show, and instead are still performed today. Examples include Simon and Garfunkels "Bridge Over Troubled Water," Pete and the Dragon's "Candle on the Water," "That's a Plenty," "When You're Smiling," Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," and the "Take Me Back Medley." Other songs that passed through the group include "Singing in the Rain," Ragtime's "Make them Hear You," "Shoo-fly Pie," "One Shining Moment," "Accentuate the Positive," "The Candyman," "Proud to be an American," and other Connection-patented songs such as, "We will Stand," "We are One," and "From Where I Stand."

In the past few years, the Youngstown City School District has endured some incredibly difficult years. In 1997, the District was taken over by the state, as it was over $24 million in debt! In addition, the Mahoning Valley was rocked by scandal, as virtually every politician was nabbed for some sort of fraud, corruption or embezzlement. Only the mayor and one judge survived, as every other elected official was fined or put in jail. George magazine listed Youngstown as the "3rd most corrupt city in America." Dark days loomed over head.

Even the Connection had their dark days, as a slew of students fled the school district. Refusing to let students outside the school district enter the group, Dr. Baird faced her toughest challenge yet. Finding talented students became more difficult. Members of Junior Connection were almost ready to enter the Big Connection, but they were not as polished as former groups. Instead of enduring a declining reputation, Dr. Baird reduced the group's load of performances and high profile trips, opting instead to train them for future years. To see the Connection was not the same. The message had become mumbled amongst the mediocre performances.

Then in 1999 and 2000, something happened. Those elementary and junior high school students who had populated the Junior Connection grew up and became good. Not just good, really good. The voices that were weak became strong. The dancing became fluid. The group's moved in absolute unison. And on top of that the group once again believed in the original message. Youngstown too was on the rebound. The school district was finally in the black. Honest citizens started watch dog groups around the city, policing corruption. A few of them even ran for office, setting off a new political era in the Mahoning Valley.

Seeing the transformation, Dr. Baird increased the number of performances for the group and took on two incredibly difficult trips. The first was to "Show Stoppers" based in Orlando, FL. This show is the mecca of show choirs around the country. The judges, though, are incredibly unkind and ruthless when it comes to critiquing the field. Nevertheless, the Connection, unlike any show choir that had entered the arena, wowed the judges and left with not so much as a critique! Then in June of 2000 the group traveled to Austria, once again going abroad to represent Ohio at various performances in the country. The group was back!

And so we enter the present day. Numerous students have had the honor of wearing the tux and gloves. Some now are in the music business. Others have become ministers and church leaders. Others have gone into teaching. While others are working in the business world. One thing still unites them all, and if you were to ask anyone of them what one of the highlights of their life was, being in the Connection always pops up. Lifelong friendships were formed. So were marriages (behind Dr. Baird's back, as she discouraged couples in the group!). All colors have passed through the group, as well as socio-economic classes. All-City Football players graced the tuxedo. So did Class Presidents. The Connection even had a Valedictorian in the group for four years running! The students in the group were not just the best singers, dancers and actors in the District, they were the best the City Schools had to offer!

The other certain thing is that the students who have been through the Connection have been changed for life. They hold a purpose now; understanding what kind of impact a simple group of students can have on the world. And when an alumni of the group comes back to watch practice, Dr. Baird always turns the boombox up a little louder and has that alumni jump in to sing and dance with the group. Later she has them tell the legendary stories of the group, motivating the newest group to create their own stories of awe. And that is how the group goes on…one lady with a dream and twelve students with a message striving towards absolute excellence.