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"I Am An American"
This simple, but meaningful, reading has its roots in the political unrest in the years surrounding the Vietnam War.
In 1966, Jack Scott, publisher of the Journal and Courier called then Director of the Purdue "All-American" Marching Band Al G. Wright. "There was a lot of student unrest going on. At Purdue it was not too bad, but he said 'Al, we've got to get some patriotism into these kids - can you help,' " Wright recalls.
A former mayor, and a retired Marine Corps general, Scott was a big fan of band performances infused with patriotism.
The idea of a short speech that would be spoken over an arrangement of "America the Beautiful" appealed to Wright. "It's a beautiful tune, a nice quiet thing you can read over," says Wright.
Inspired by patriotic verses he read either on a menu or a placement at the Downtowner Restaurant in Lafayette, he penned the five-line reading that begins and ends with the words " I Am An American."
Wright remembers that everyone in the stadium automatically stood the first time the band announcer read "I Am An American" as the Purdue "All-American" Marching Band performed as part of a halftime show. He remembers how pleasantly surprised he was with the positive reaction it received from students.
What Wright didn't know at that time was just how big an impact it made. Always one to do things differently, and not repeat ideas, he dropped "I Am An American" from the next home football game show in the 1966 season. An editorial came out in Journal and Courier asking what had happened to "I Am An American," and "the Exponent and the Journal and Courier were inundated with letters," he says. So Wright made the reading part of the pregame flag ceremony for the last two games of the season. Capping that season, Purdue played in the Rose Bowl for the first time and "I Am An American" was heard all over the United States of America for the first time on national television.
At the beginning of the 1967 season, Wright decided once again it was time for a change and he eliminated "I Am An American." Once again, public outcry forced him to restore it. And it's been a tradition ever since.
That doesn't mean, however, that Wright didn't try one more time to reshape the tradition he started by rewording the script and substituting some different phrases. The public didn't go for the rewording either. They were incensed, and the response was "horrific," Wright recalls. "It was like changing the Bible. You can't do it."
"I Am An American" returned to its original wording and no more changes have been attempted.
Although different band announcers presented "I Am An American" in the early years, the honor of presenting it since 1973 has belonged to Roy Johnson, a Purdue alumnus who was serving as Associate Registrar when he retired after 25 years with the university. He is also a former member of the Big Bass Drum Crew. But Johnson is best known as the "Voice of the All-American Band" and his distinctive voice is indelibly linked with that reading by Purdue football fans.
Some time in the past decade, Johnson thinks around the time of the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the Purdue crowds started chiming in on the reading's last line " I AM AN AMERICAN" - and that has also become a tradition.
In good times, and in times of national unrest, this important Purdue "All-American" Marching Band tradition, has provided an important sense of pride and continuity to those on the Purdue campus, and to alums scattered around the world, as well as to the Greater Lafayette community and the state of Indiana.
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