Purdue Band & Alums celebrate 90 years at Indy 500 on May 23-24
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Several hundred band alumni will join the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band in celebrating its 90th anniversary with the Indianapolis 500 on May 23-24. Both the “All-American” Band and a separate Alumni Band will march in Saturday’s nationally-televised 500 Festival Parade and both will appear at the track for race day festivities on Sunday.
Following the tradition established by Paul Spotts Emrick in 1919, it will be the sole duty of the “All-American” Band, however, to perform for the opening ceremonies on Sunday, May 24. As it has for many, many years it will accompany Jim Nabors as he sings “Back Home Again in Indiana and Florence Henderson as she sings “God Bless America.”
“Having grown up in Indiana around the festivities that surround the Indianapolis 500, there has been two constants over the past 90 years – 500 miles and the Purdue Band. Drivers change, cars change from year to year, the track and the grandstands have been renovated many times and the featured singers change but the Purdue Band has been there year after year,” says Jay S. Gephart, director of the “All-American” band.
“I can’t imagine the 500 without the Purdue Band. It’s as important as singing ‘Back Home in Indiana’ or saying ‘Gentlemen Start Your Engines.’ All are treasured traditions of the 500 mile race.”
Literally thousands of bandsmen and women have marched over the bricks, and later the smoothly paved surface of the 2.5 mile oval track over the past nine decades. Gephart expects an alumni group of 200 to participate in the festivities. Three of these marchers claim Emrick as their director with the oldest participants being two baritone players who graduated in 1954 - Roger Stover from Texas and John Eckert from California.
Gephart believes Emrick had an uncanny knack for public relations and used every opportunity to latch onto opportunities that put the Purdue Band in a regional or national spotlight. The story of how Emrick managed to create the link between the band and the race has been lost, but he would undoubtedly be proud that Purdue’s Band is now being heard and seen by audiences all over the globe. Several years ago, a TV crew from Japan filmed a documentary on the band at the 500 that was show on Asian networks.
“As forward thinking as Spotts was, I think he would consider 90 years as pretty special, knowing something he started had become part of the permanent fabric of Purdue bands,” says Gephart. Purdue’s Big Bass Drum, another Emrick innovation which marks its 88th years in 2009, will be part of the 500 parade and race festivities.
Over the years there’s been an unwavering commitment on the part of Purdue and the Hulman/George family that cements the band-race connection. “It’s a mutual commitment. The George family sees the importance of the connection and so do we,” says Gephart. “Our students pay out of their own pockets to come back for the weekend because they know how important it is.”
Five Purdue directors, beginning with Emrick, have brought their bands to the 500 and each director will be represented with alumni marchers. Together, the alumni participants have spent almost 700 years in band, and they’re returning to Indianapolis to mark the band’s 90th year from 28 different states, coming from as far as Hawaii, California, Oregon, Florida and New Hampshire.
“For the alumni, it’s more than reliving old memories. They feel a need to be here. It’s their commitment to the band that makes them want to continue to be a part of it,” Gephart says.
Both the alums and the students will have banquets in Indianapolis as part of the 90th celebration. It’s certain that a lot of memory sharing will occur on these occasions. One of the things band members have enjoyed through the decades it the unique chance to see visiting celebrities and drivers up close. Here are a few treasured stories.
From1987 grad David Kantor:“One of my favorite parts of race day was when the celebrities would get out of their cars after their parade lap around the track, and mingle with marching band members as we waited for pre-race ceremonies. On this particular day (May 24, 1987), Chuck Yeager glanced towards me as he hopped out of his pace car. He headed straight for me, stuck out his hand and said with a big smile: “So, you must play the trombone!” I replied: “I hear you fly airplanes!” We both got a big chuckle after stating the obvious. I told him that I was a fellow aviator and had just graduated from Purdue, eight days earlier, with a BS in Aviation Technology. He said: “Fantastic! Good luck with your career in aviation!”
“Two weeks later, I started reading Chuck Yeager’s autobiography, “Yeager” that I had received as a graduation gift. In one of the first chapters, I read that Chuck Yeager played the trombone when he was in school!! I couldn’t believe it! If I had that moment in time back, I would have handed him my trombone, put my hat on his head and let him play “Hail Purdue!” Regardless of an opportunity lost, it was one of my fondest, Indianapolis 500 memories. I had a chance to meet the first person to break the sound barrier.”
From 1985 grad Tracy Hine Bullion: “It was 1982 and I had just finished my freshman year. I was in the front rank and we stopped right on the finish line on the bricks. All eight of us got chills from the history. When we went into the pits and we were playing, Jim Nabors walked by. Everyone was whispering and I, being the quiet person I was, yelled, "HEY GOMER!!!" Well we started playing another song, but he came up to me and we started dancing together right there in the pits. It was a blast! When we got done dancing, Mr. Nabors thanked me, and then a California radio station came up to interview on "what it felt like to dance with Jim Nabors and my reaction"!!
From 2003 grad David Hornthal: My favorite memory of the Indy 500 is catching Steven Tyler’s harmonica after he played/sung the Star Spangled Banner at the 2001 race. Tyler, the lead singer of Aerosmith, was the solo vocalist for the national anthem that year. He was standing on a podium that was above the band. He started out with a harmonica solo and then started singing the anthem. When he started singing he tossed his harmonica and it came right into the band. I was able to scoop it up and now I own a piece of one of the worst national anthems in Indy 500 history; the one that ended, “… and the home of the Indianapolis 500.”
Contact information provided upon request
Five former Golden Girls participating
Dawn Beck Colombo 1985-1989
Holly Fehrman Allen 1989-1994
Susan Fron 1978-1982
June Ciampa Lauer 1961-1965
Valerie Ludwig Willman 1983-1986
Alisha Bane Kuckartz 1994-95
Three men from bands led by Paul Spotts Emrick who started 500 tradition
Roger Stover, 1954, from Texas, baritone
John Eckert, 1954, from California, baritone
Dave Elvers, 1955, Big Ten Flags
Other fun facts
Alumni attending from 28 states including Hawaii, Arizona, Oregon, California, New Hampshire, Florida. Approximately 47 percent are from Indiana with the majority living in the Greater Indianapolis area.
Alumni Schedule in Brief
Friday, 5/22/09 Indiana State Fairgrounds, Indianapolis, IN
6:00 PM – Drill Begins at TBD Fairgrounds Site
7:30 PM – Dinner at Farm Bureau Building
Saturday, 5/23/09 Indiana State Fairgrounds, Indianapolis, IN
9:30 AM – Begin loading and boarding the buses by Fairgrounds dorms (near Northwest Entrance to fairgrounds on
10:00 AM – Buses depart for 500 Parade. Staging site for band TBA.
12 Noon – 500 Parade Starts. The parade is 1.9 miles.
Sunday, 5/24/09 Indiana State Fairgrounds, Indianapolis, IN
5:45 AM – Buses leave fairgrounds site. We will rendezvous with the AAMB buses and their police escort to get the racetrack.
7:30 AM – Arrive at IMS
10:00 AM – Parade of Bands. March down front straightway (approx 1.5 miles)
11:30 AM – Finish marching, pack up instruments, dismiss
Photos from the 2008 Indy 500
Photos from earlier Indy 500s
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