Spring 1997

Marching Royal Dukes Parade Presidential Timbre
by Jeremy Nafziger

President James Madison took his first inaugural oath on March 4, 1807. One hundred-ninety years later, on Jan. 20, 1997, his namesake's band, the Marching Royal Dukes, paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue to help the nation celebrate the second inauguration of President William Jefferson Clinton.

Together with the country's elite military bands, some of the best college bands in the nation, floats, drill teams, mariachi bands, a restored covered wagon, you name it, the Marching Royal Dukes marched past the president, U.S. dignitaries, a half million citizens and the cameras of several national television networks.

The Marching Royal Dukes were the largest band in the parade and one of only seven college bands selected nationwide for the honor.

"This was one of the most special things," says JMU Director of Bands Pat Rooney, whose Marching Royal Dukes' national reputation has earned them the pick of the top special events throughout the country. "That day is America's day, and the entire world is watching."

The pomp and politics of the event make spots in the parade hard to come by, and given the circumstances (one, that the students were home on Christmas break while parade planning and practicing would have to be done), Rooney hadn't planned to apply. Then he got a call from a band alumnus whose JMU roommate, Mike Lynch, was serving on the inaugural parade committee.

Across the Mall,

almost mirroring us,

was Florida A&M,

one of the finest

college bands in America.

We were right there with them.

At that moment

I knew

this was something special.'

– Pat Rooney.

After deciding the parade was worth a shot, Rooney sent in the application by fax just days before the deadline along with a letter listing the band's accomplishments - NFL halftime shows and performances the Virginia governor's mansion, lots of parades, all crowned by the 1994 Sudler Trophy, given annually to the nation's most outstanding marching band. With Virginia Sen. John Warner already the chairman of the inaugural committee, Sen. Charles S. Robb also sent a letter to the parade committee extolling the skills and virtues of the Marching Royal Dukes.

Rooney didn't hear anything from the committee until the selections were announced in the Washington Post: The band that has been billed as "Virginia's finest" and one of America's finest would march for America's finest hour.

When students returned to JMU on Jan. 6, practice began almost immediately on American Celebration, a medley of Yankee Doodle and You're A Grand Old Flag, arranged by Robert Smith, a JMU music professor noted nationwide for his compositions. Despite the 15-degree weather they practiced in, the band was ready to go, Rooney says. After all, they'd been places before. Selection for the inaugural parade and winning the Sudler Trophy - the so-called "Heisman Trophy of Bands" - are just the latest banners on the Marching Royal Dukes' standard.

The band was formed in 1972 when Malcolm Harris recruited 100 members to complement Madison College's brand new football team. As the band's size grew under directors Ken Moulton ('74-77) and Mike Davis ('77-81), so did its list of accomplishments. Of course, there were the football halftime shows at JMU that kept the fans in their seats and there were also recordings, parades and invitations to play around the country.

After Rooney took over the program, the honors continued to mount: Band members played at the 1984 Olympics and the 1986 rededication of the Statue of Liberty; and the entire regiment played halftime at the NFC championship game in 1983 in Washington, D.C.; halftimes for the Washington Redskins, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Colts; the Richmond Christmas Parade, including three trips as the featured band; the Virginia governor's mansion in 1985 for Gov. Chuck Robb; and exhibitions at the Bands of America National Marching Band Contest in 1988 and 1991 among others. Annual recordings sold well, and finally, in 1994, the Sudler Trophy - accompanied by a full-length story in USA Today - confirmed the Marching Royal Dukes' growing reputation.

JMU was the first school with a I-AA football team to win the Sudler Trophy, presented by the John Philip Sousa Foundation and based on a vote by 680 band directors at National Collegiate Athletic Association member schools. Rather than honor a single parade or performance, the prize honors long-term excellence. "Now, with a place in the college band elite," Rooney says, "our challenge is to maintain that level."

The number of Marching Royal Dukes applicants continues to rise, and the band's notoriety has heightened its popularity. But, according to Rooney, the band's hallmark and goal have always been musical excellence. The medium is not unlike a Broadway play - an entertaining mix of the visual and aural - and no great band's performance tolerates low quality in either regard.

"We are part of the music school, so that was my first emphasis," Rooney says.

Over the years, the Dukes' repertoire has included opera, Copeland, Gershwin, Dvorak, pieces from musicals, and pop pieces from the Beatles, Chicago and many others. The Dukes' great sound can be heard on CDs and on selections recorded for distinguished publishers such as C.L. Barnhouse, CPP Belwin and Warner Bros.

Part of the band's success is due, no doubt, to a longevity among its current directors: Rooney has led the band for 15 years, while assistant director of marching Bill Posey (who was also a drum major for the band) and percussion instructor Bill Rice have both been with the Dukes for 16 years. Guard instructor Ray Lynch (who also marched with the Dukes from 1982 to 1986) has stayed with the band for nine years.

For Rooney, whose initial ambition before teaching was to become a professional clarinet or sax player, his longevity at JMU carries a touch of irony. After teaching for six years in public schools, earning his advanced degrees and directing the band at East Central Oklahoma University, he came to JMU in 1982 looking to move up and move on.

"I came here thinking this was going to be my steppingstone to a big-time program," Rooney told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, one of several major media outlets that featured the band when the inauguration selections were made. "I didn't realize this was going to be the big-time program."

It doesn't get any more "big time" than the afternoon of Jan. 20, 1997, when he and the band marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., past President Clinton and assembled dignitaries on the country's proudest day.

After extensive security checks, the band waited in front of the Capitol for the behind-schedule parade to begin, getting cold and eating the turkey sandwiches provided by the inaugural committee. The significance of the band's achievement truly hit at that moment, for the Marching Royal Dukes waited in good company.

"All of a sudden I looked up and realized we were surrounded by the Marine Band, the Army Band, the Air Force Band and the Navy Band. And across the Mall, almost mirroring us, was Florida A&M, one of the finest college bands in America. We were right there with them. At that moment I knew this was something special."

They left the assembly area on the Mall as part of a division headed by the Marine Band and turned near the Capitol onto the parade route - "a sea of red, white and blue," Rooney recalls.

"Everyone was cheering and seemed really happy to be there," says Carolyn French, a three-year member of the color guard. "Really, it's one of those things you want to tell your grandchildren about."

The day offered some moments that band members and JMU friends will never forget. As the Marching Royal Dukes slowed to turn the corner from 15th Street onto Pennsylvania Avenue, a member of the color guard facing the reviewing stand stole a look at Hillary Rodham Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea. The first lady waved.

With the corner turned, the Marching Royal Dukes struck up You're A Grand Old Flag. The C-Span coverage, recorded on VCR by hundreds of proud JMUers, then switched to the president, who, in mid-conversation, turned toward the street and clenched his fist the way a proud parent might. And then, depending on which lip readers are the most accurate, he said either, "That's a great band," or "What a sound," neither of which can possibly be taken as anything but praise.

The band then marched on by, 20 ranks spread over 75 yards, 28-inch steps at the rate of 112 beats per minute, another half-mile to waiting buses, and, eventually, onto the CNN and inaugural parade web sites, into a piece of history and into JMU legend. "You really get caught up in the hype of the day," Rooney says. "I won't forget that."

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