FORTY YEARS WITH THE WESLEYAN PEP BAND BY STEW GILLMOR

Stew Gilmor plays sousaphone with the Wesleyan Pep Band during Wesleyan's win over Colby College on October 5th

Stew Gilmor plays sousaphone with the Wesleyan Pep Band during Wesleyan’s win over Colby College on October 5th. Photo: Stew Gilmor plays sousaphone with the Wesleyan Pep Band during Wesleyan’s win over Colby College on October 5th. Photo: Ryan Heffernan.

Dick Winslow ’40 was scared! It was September 1935, and he had just arrived on the Wesleyan campus with his trombone and gone to Pep Band tryouts. The student band leader announced that there was nobody to play the big sousaphone for the first football game coming up in a week, and Winslow was given the order: “Learn the finger positions and play the sousaphone next week.” Winslow (who later joined the faculty) must have done okay, because he became the Pep Band leader in his senior year. 

Winslow maintains that the Pep Band was always a student-run affair, but photos in the Olla Podrida yearbook in the early ’30s seem to indicate a faculty leader or drill master as the “Field Band” of 35 persons is shown marching on the football field. Uniforms in those early days indicate white worsted pants with either black or white wool sweaters marked with the big “W” and a cardinal. Sometimes photos show guys in jackets and ties.

During World War II, when the Navy V-12 programs were on campus, a full marching band with men and women performed on the field and before Wednesday evening movies. In fall ’47, the student body chipped in money to help with uniforms, red bow ties and caps for the first full-strength student field band since 1941. This band played for various athletic events. Sometime in the 1950s, the field band approach changed and the band diminished in numbers to the pep band size—around 12 students—e.g., five trombones, three trumpets, three French horns, one clarinet, one piccolo, one sousaphone, and a student conductor.

In the early 1960s, the Pep Band almost disappeared, or perhaps did disappear. When it reappeared, it also entered an era of having faculty musicians, and especially with the involvement of the chemistry department. It was perhaps chemistry student Bill Fornaciari ’70 who brought back the Pep Band. At times there was a miniature upright piano carried into the stands, and the band came to be known as the “Card Players.” 

Remember the undefeated football team of fall ’69? Early faculty members joining the band at this time were Wis Comfort, math; Stew Gillmor, history; and Pete Pringle, chemistry. Chemistry faculty also included the chemical trumpet trio of Pete Pringle, Peter Jacobi, and Joe Bruno, plus the alto horn of Al Fry. In subsequent years German contributed Peter Frenzel (he couldn’t bring those big bells into the stands, so Laurie Frenzel bought Gillmor’s glockenspiel for Peter as a Christmas present). All-round musical genius Anthony Braxton joined for a year (one day even playing his concert sopranino sax inside a plastic bag in the rain), and Dean Edgar “Sticks” Beckham ’58 frequently joined in on drums, as did Mike Lovell of economics on clarinet. 

Alumni come back: Two of the most faithful are former leaders Evan Drutman ’86 and Nick Blondin ’04. For decades the Pep Band used little folding band books with standard college songs (“On Wisconsin,” “Go You Northwestern,” “Notre Dame Victory March”), sometimes pepped up with separate tunes (“Pink Panther,” “Rockin’ the  Blues”). Students such as David Matus ’98 and Scott McCracken ’98 arranged some fight songs for us. Other noted leaders were Ellis Neufeld ’79, Scott Hecker ’80, and Matt Wein ’92.

Marriages have been built in the Pep Band.  Rusty Anderson ’01 and Jessica Schlier Anderson ’01 and James Maniscalco ’08 and Mehera Bonner ’08 can thank their Pep Band experiences for uniting them.

We have also had grateful alums. The most noted was the late Joe Lynch ’47. Joe always offered to sponsor a bus to the away games at Trinity, Williams, or Amherst, and he provided beverages along the way. One year the football team arrived at Williams in regular yellow school buses, while Joe had rented for the cheerleaders and the Pep Band a Dattco first-class Greyhound Bus model coach. Joe also helped purchase a sousaphone for the band. 

Particularly under Evan Drutman’s student leadership, the Pep Band built a five- or six-piece jazz core that played at other university functions. President Campbell especially called on us to celebrate openings of buildings and other ceremonies, and we also played at some hockey, basketball, and baseball games (men’s and women’s).

Fun things: At one football game in 1987, the students announced that we were going to have an on-field Marxist demonstration at halftime. Several of us faculty passed up the opportunity to perform. The demonstration happened to be each student marching while wearing Groucho Marx fake glasses and mustache attachment. 

Pete Pringle remembers when Wesleyan went to Williams with each team undefeated at that point. The Williams Pep Band began “trashing” the guy in the Wesleyan Cardinal suit and the Wesleyan Pep Band charged into the fight, which was settled by university staff. Another time at Williams, in the mid-’80s, Williams Pep Band guys went under the visitor stands and took the Wesleyan instrument cases and carried them away. This, too, almost ended in fist fights until President Campbell and staff got the instrument cases returned. 

One of my most enjoyable moments was November 8, 1986, on the Wesleyan Field in the Wes-Trinity end-of-season football game. Trinity, as usual, was highly favored, with extremely fast and shifty backs and ends. We didn’t have that much, but Waldo Williams ’87, our fullback, was a brave guy. It had rained a lot for three or four days and our field was a mess, especially the end toward Wyllys Avenue, which was two or three inches under water near the goal line. It poured rain as game time approached and the Pep Band attendance was three: Wis Comfort, Stew Gillmor, and the student leader. All three of us brought trombones. The student said, “Maybe I should go get the bass drum.” “Good Idea,” said Gillmor and Comfort. Just after the student left, the announcer intoned over the speaker system: “And now, will you all please rise and join the Wesleyan Pep Band in singing our National Anthem.” Whether or not the two-trombone faculty member Pep Band made a difference, Waldo Williams set a Wesleyan rushing record of over 185 yards, Trinity’s flashy ends fell down in the rain, and Wesleyan won the game 21–17.

It’s been a memorable 40 years unofficially advising the Pep Band. At most of the home football games we would provide four or five faculty musicians, added to the eight to 10 students. We never ruled anyone out for not being “good enough.” 

Why have Wis and Pete and I spent so much time messing around with a student organization? Well, I think that’s a good part of the enjoyment of being a Wes faculty member. We’re also a little crazy. Wis now plays weekly in an eight-piece Dixie Band that performs down along the shore. Back in 1960 I helped found a singing, marching band that still performs in the San Francisco Bay Area. We turn out as many as 100 people to march in big parades. Each member of Los Trancos Woods Community Marching Band wears his or her own chosen costume. I am dressed as “Lawrence of Disarraybia,” wearing a day-glo fuchsia U.S. Navy parachute drop marker fashioned into an Arab-style robe. Last time I marched with them, we beat out for first place the Humboldt State University Marching Lumberjacks and the Bay Area Gay and Lesbian Marching Band.   

Stew Gillmore is Wesleyan professor of history and science, emeritus.