PSU grad documents history of Blue Band
Saturday, November 8, 2008
By Gae Kane Staff Writer
Anyone who has ever attended a Pennsylvania State University football game knows the thrill and excitement the beloved Blue Band generates.
"A hush falls over the 95,000 people in attendance as a drum taps measure. A whistle blows once, then four times rapidly and suddenly the drums thunder in a staccato fury. Up from the depths of Beaver Stadium storm the 275 members of The Pennsylvania State University Marching Blue Band as they triple time onto the field. The only thing louder than the fight song is the roar of thousands of football fans cheering them on," Sean Smith wrote. But over the 100-year history of the Blue Band, no one had documented the band's struggle, perseverance and triumphs.
Box after box was stacked and piled throughout the room when Sean Smith and Tom Range found them. Before they began their search, this pair of college roommates had no idea such an untapped treasure existed. As the pair rummaged through the boxes, they recognized the need to preserve what they had found. Initially, they thought the best way to do this would be to hire a ghostwriter to compile a book about the Blue Band's history. However, as they continued to unearth amazing things, they realized they were the only ones who could write the book, and that's exactly what they did.
Eighteen months later, a centennial history of the Blue Band was released. This book, which became the fastest selling book published by Penn State, is not only the first book about the band, but it is filled with never before published photos, personal accounts and an extremely well-documented history of the band.
Mr. Smith, who now works for Lezzer Lumber Co. as a computer and network administrator, and Mr. Range were both members of the Blue Band while at Penn State. Mr. Smith admits he is still a bit of a band geek. His love of the music, the Blue Band and the band traditions are very clear, as is his knowledge of the band's history.
One of Mr. Smith's favorite tales involves the famous flip done by the drum major as the band takes the field during home games. The flip is one of the more recent of the band traditions. Prior to 1971, the drum majors twirled and tossed their batons, doing some amazing stunts.
However, when Jeff Robertson became the drum major in the early '70s, his first two attempts ended with him sitting on the ground, the plume from his hat lost. "The crowd was not amused," Mr. Robertson noted.
When Band Day arrived, filling Beaver Stadium with hundreds of high school students, it was time to pull out all the stops. Mr. Robertson put on a pair of cleats and attached a football helmet chinstrap to his hat and then did a back flip from a roundoff nailing it by landing on his feet. Today, when the drum major makes a flip and lands on his feet, fans know the Nittany Lions are sure to win the game.
"The Blue Band actually grew from a six-member drum and bugle corps formed in 1899," Mr. Smith said. "By 1913, the band had grown into what was called the College band. Tommy Thompson, who was later widely recognized as one of the best bandmasters in the world, became director a year later. Because Thompson was a good friend of John Phillip Sousa, the famed composer visited Penn State. James Leyden, along with other talented arrangers and songwriters, began to compose some of Penn State's most popular music: ‘Victory,' ‘Nittany Lion' and ‘Fight On, State.' By the time I joined, the band had grown to 300 strong."
"The history of the Blue Band mirrors the history of our country," Mr. Smith pointed out. As the country grew, influential businessmen like Andrew Carnegie contributed to both the band's growth and Penn State's development.
Despite the depression during the 1930s, both Penn State and the Blue Band continued to grow and develop. In the 1940s, with most men in the service, the band took a more creative direction with its field presentations, and for the first time, women were permitted to participate.
After World War II, the Blue Band returned to an all-male organization, but a concert Blue Band was formed that included coeds, and today, the Blue Band is completely coed.
Since the end of World War II, the band has become the one of the country's most noteworthy collegiate bands, capable of complicated precision high-stepping routines.
"When Penn State joined Big 10 football, things really changed for the band. We got to travel all over the country for games and other events, including some 33 bowl games - even the Rose Bowl, which included the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena - the Orange Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl. But the old traditions, things like marching to the stadium before home games, have been preserved," Mr. Smith said. "It's important to maintain and honor these traditions. One of the most impressive of these traditions is that anyone, not just music majors, can audition for the Blue Band. Today, the band has second, third and fourth generation members."
Graham Spanier, president of the university, summed up the importance of the Blue Band in the book's introduction when he indicated that the Blue Band has a magical ability to capture the attention and rouse the emotions of everyone present, knitting generations of students and alumni together.
Joe Paterno indicated that, "When the Nittany Lions charge through the team aisle formation prior to each home game, the verve that comes from the Blue Band never fails to energize me and every player who has ever made that dramatic entrance into Beaver Stadium."
"The friends I made while playing for the Blue Band continue to be an important part of my life," Mr. Smith said. "Tom, Lew Lazarow, another Blue Band alumni, and I are working on a second volume about the band, which should be ready shortly. These books are works of love filled with anecdotal information, historical background and hundreds of photographs."
Mr. Smith serves as an associate pastor with the Mountain Top United Methodist Charge in Snow Shoe and is the father of two children, a daughter, Sherilyn, 11, and a son, Ray, 9.