Sunday, February 8, 2004

Marching Jayhawks maintain traditions through long history


A few things about the Kansas University marching band were different back in the days when George Duerksen was a member, in the mid-1950s.

Women weren't allowed to march. The band took trains to away football games. Uniforms were black -- not crimson, blue and white. And there was much more emphasis on forming shapes on the field, such as a heart for the homecoming game.

But two things have stayed constant since then -- the band is still a tight-knit and high-profile group.

"I think it really means something to the students involved," said Duerksen, now a professor of music at KU. "When you think about audiences, a lot of people see the band."

The band wasn't always a respected group on campus, though.

Its humble beginnings are chronicled in a 1980 master's thesis by Dianna Eiland, now a public school band director in Groveton, Va.

The first band was formed by students in 1878, and it had 12 members, according to Eiland's research. Bands were intermittently found on campus between then and 1907, when the university first paid its band director.

"Once a student formed a band, he had to lead it with very little moral or monetary support from the university or the student body," Eiland wrote.

The primary focus of the early bands was to perform at sporting events, especially football games. The band's membership dwindled in the spring -- when there was less interest in sports -- though it did play for baseball games.


Russell Wiley, director of the Kansas University bands from 1934 to 1971, designates a President Dwight Eisenhower an honorary band member in this 1955 Jayhawker Yearbook photo. Wiley's long tenure as director has helped the marching band program maintain stability and tradition through the years.

A major boost came in 1907, when the university started paying J.C. McCanles to direct the band.

After three decades of inconsistent bands and leaders, it might seem unlikely that KU bands would have only six directors over the next 97 years. Directors have been:

  • McCanles, 1907-1934.
  • Russell Wiley, 1934-1968.

  • Kenneth Bloomquist, 1968-1970.
  • George Boberg, 1971.
  • Robert Foster, 1971-2002.
  • John Lynch, current director, who started in 2002.

Foster said he saw similarities between the low number of directors and the low number of KU basketball coaches. Only eight men have coached that team.

"The basketball program and the band program at KU have been pretty stable," said Foster, now a music professor at KU. "Continuity has been a huge factor in the success of the (music) program."

Early highlights

McCanles was instrumental in securing the band's first uniforms in 1907. There apparently was a buzz around campus about the newly stabilized band.

"The first two or three appearances of the band has made it evident that when the band goes to other towns it will not be 'roasted,'" the student newspaper reported that year.


Members of the marching band at Kansas University line up for a group shot in front of old Hoch Auditorium. This band performed in the 1930s.

Early highlights of the band included:

  • Playing in Topeka during a 1908 appearance by William Taft, who would be sworn in as president the next year.
  • The formation of an all-girls concert band during World War II, because there were not enough men left to play.
  • Performing several pieces, including "Washington Post," under the direction of John Philip Sousa, when Sousa's band played at Hoch Auditorium in 1927.
  • Playing "Turkey in the Straw" after every touchdown.


The 1969 Orange Bowl -- which KU lost 15-14 to Miami -- was a big game in the history of the KU marching band.

That was the introduction of the current band uniform look and the first time the band made the formation of a sunflower on the field for pregame. It's a tradition that remains today.

"Those bowl games are a major event in the life of the university," Foster said.

More changes came in 1971, when Foster started as band director. Those included the addition of "Home on the Range" to the pregame show, the introduction of a flag team and the first time the band ran down the stairs at Memorial Stadium for pregame.

And a pinnacle of the marching band program came in 1989, when KU won the Sudler Trophy from the John Philip Sousa Foundation. The trophy is the nation's top award for marching bands.

"That was a very big deal," Foster said. "It's the closest a college band kid can do to be awarded a Heisman Trophy."

Lynch, the current band director, said he and band students were always mindful of the band's long history. Traditions such as marching down the hill before a game make KU bands special, he says.

"We are always aware of our outstanding tradition, and we try to be sensitive to it and retain that which really says KU band," Lynch said. "Little things are passed on from generation to generation."

The current Feather the Flock campaign, which aims to raise $150,000 for new band uniforms, can help continue that tradition, Lynch said. The uniforms' new design hasn't been completed, but it's expected to draw on elements of the design used since 1969.

"We are really going to incorporate the past and look forward," Lynch said. "We respect and honor traditions, but at the same time we're moving in a new direction and going forward."

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