He retired from the Army in 1995, with just about the highest rank imaginable, but John Sobke is still proudly serving his country.
When the 80-member Savannah Winds Community Wind Symphony pays proud tribute to the red, white and blue Sunday, the three-star major general will be right up there on the stage - alongside musicians of every age, profession and musical skill level. He's been anchoring the flute section since 2002.
With the works of Sousa, Berlin, Barber and other well-loved American composers, the annual Patriotic Concert is the centerpiece of Savannah Winds' season. Mark B. Johnson, director of bands at Armstrong Atlantic State University, is the all-volunteer group's music director and conductor (AASU is Savannah Winds' official sponsor organization).
At 69, Sobke isn't exactly the youngest member of Savannah Winds. He's not the oldest, either. But he has, by a landslide, the most fascinating back story.
Born in California, Sobke was an Army brat who moved around the country - and to Central and South America - as his dad's assignments warranted.
He started playing the flute at age 12, and got pretty good at it. He attended Valley Forge Military Academy on a music scholarship.
"Then I went to college and got into engineering, and I sort of gave it up," Sobke says. "Because I couldn't keep music and engineering going at the same time. So I never did anything with it, except to keep my hand in it, for the next 40 years or so."
In the early 1960s, Sobke received a Regular Army commission as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. He commanded a combat engineer battalion at Fort Riley, Kansas, and a combat engineer brigade in West Germany; he was a tactical officer at West Point, served two tours of duty in Vietnam, was the Assistant Chief of Engineers in the Pentagon and Deputy Chief of Engineers in Washington. His military awards include include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star, all with oak leaf clusters.
"I had a lot of opportunities along the way," he says. "I went to numerous schools, got two masters degrees - the Army did that for me. It probably wouldn't have happened otherwise.
"And everything was a new adventure. When you get to serve with soldiers, and take care of them, and then see a lot of the world, that broadens you out."
All the while, he practiced his flute when he could find the time. He played at home, he played in church, he sat in once or twice with an Army band. In Jidda, Saudi Arabia, he sat in the pit orchestra for a performance of My Fair Lady.
"I didn't let it completely go, let's put it that way," he says.
With Marilyn, his wife of 43 years, Sobke has been a Chatham County resident since 2002. He studies under Lorraine Jones, principal flutist for the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra.
He is serious about his music. "A couple of summers ago, I went over to England and studied with a master flutist there," he relates. "That was quite an eye-opener.
"They had 45 flutists from 24 countries - and 43 of them were better than I was. Including the Japanese girl and the Russian boy."
He's made many friends in the ranks of Savannah Winds, and looks forward to every Monday night's rehearsal.
"It's an age-diverse, talent-diverse group of people that are willing to get together and work hard to produce a good sound, a sound that they enjoy producing," Sobke says. "That's the satisfaction of the whole thing.
"And in this town, which is struggling to support a symphony orchestra, we come across as kind of a neat alternative."
Savannah Winds Patriotic Concert
Where: Fine Arts Auditorium, Armstrong Atlantic State University, 11935 Abercorn St.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, June 28
Tickets: Public $12 advance, $14 at the door; seniors, military personnel children/students $10 advance, $12 at the door
Phone: (912) 344-2556
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