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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Director of Bands Mike Leckrone stands in front of his marching band for the last time after a career that has lasted half a century. 

Director of Bands Mike Leckrone stands in front of his marching band for the last time after a career that has lasted half a century. 

Band Director Mike Leckrone takes his final bow, bringing the stadium to tears

Few band directors get the chance to teach the children of former students. Even fewer directors have conducted their students’ grandchildren, maintaining leadership long enough to influence decades of performers.

UW-Madison’s Director of Bands Mike Leckrone, a career of 50 years under his belt, has done both.

Leckrone, whose career has lasted longer than any other director in the Big Ten, conducted his last halftime show and Fifth Quarter — a tradition he started himself — at Camp Randall last Saturday. Apart from a future appearance at Wisconsin’s bowl game, the Minnesota face-off closed the book on Leckrone’s half-century as marching band conductor.

He’s part of Badger tradition today, but when Leckrone first arrived on campus in 1969, he was a newcomer trying to fill the shoes of a UW-Madison icon.

Leckrone followed in the footsteps of renowned Director of Bands Ray Dvorak, who led the Wisconsin band for 34 years and created such traditions as singing “Varsity” and the hand-wave that accompanies it.

“[Dvorak] was someone who was very revered by the students,” Leckrone said. “It was very intimidating because I felt like I was following somebody who had legendary status.”

Not only that, campus was in the midst of social transformation and unrest when Leckrone took the baton. Wearing a uniform and marching was not popular during a time when many students were protesting the Vietnam War, according to Leckrone. The football team was also deep in a losing streak exceeding 20 games, which Leckrone said lowered interest in the marching band.

He fought this lack of excitement by creating an atmosphere where band members could have fun in addition to working hard. He built enthusiasm not only by expanding the band’s role, but by embracing change.

Perhaps one of the most impactful changes Leckrone oversaw was the addition of women into the ranks of the marching band in 1974.

MaryAnne Thurber and Paula Schultz marched in Wisconsin’s first co-ed band, and Thurber cited Leckrone himself as part of what drew her to audition.

“When Leckrone came, [the band] just exploded with excitement,” Thurber said. “Who wouldn't want to be part of it?”

The Wisconsin Marching Band can also thank Leckrone for traditions including the “stop at the top” style of marching — a high-step with a pause when the knee is at its highest point. He extended the band’s role so they played at sporting events beyond just football and men’s basketball, and took regular trips to perform at other Big Ten stadiums.

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Leckrone’s tenure also impacted fans of Badger football when the Fifth Quarter tradition emerged in the late 1970s. While most marching bands played music as the stadium emptied, Leckrone’s band encouraged students to stay after the game to celebrate as band members entertained them with antics such as headstands and kicking their legs in the air while playing on their backs.

Now between 30,000 and 40,000 fans stay up to 50 minutes after the conclusion of a Wisconsin football game just to be a part of the celebration that is the Fifth Quarter.

As he reinvigorated the band program, Leckrone demanded only the best from his musicians.

“I always emphasize you have to have fun, but you have to be good at what you’re doing,” Leckrone said. “It has to be that combination.”

Incoming students looking to audition for the marching band have continued to hear about this reputation for as long as Leckrone has directed.

“I heard that he was going to be the most intense band director that I would ever have,” trumpet player Josie O’Donnell, a UW-Madison junior said.

Leckrone’s high standards did not prevent his retirement from being an emotional occasion, however. He waited to release the news publicly until he’d told the band, despite making the decision a few weeks prior to the Aug. 25 announcement.

Reflecting on that day, Leckrone said he still can’t read the band’s reaction.

“I can’t tell you whether it was a sense of a career coming to an end and there was a certain amount of sadness to that, or I can’t tell you whether it was joy: ‘Well, finally, we’re gonna get rid of him!’” Leckrone said.

Members of the band, on the other hand, remembered the reaction being much more straightforward.

“Oh, I cried,” O’Donnell said. “Most of us cried.”

Thurber, who hasn’t played in Leckrone’s band since she made history as a female band member in the ‘70s, echoed O’Donnell’s sentiments.

“Well if there isn’t a collective anguished sob across America, I don't know what’s wrong,” Thurber said.

Some weren’t surprised by Leckrone’s decision to retire this year, between the 50-year milestone, a previous double-bypass surgery and the passing of his wife last year, but Leckrone said there was no concrete plan until this past summer when the timing “started to click.” He explained he never wanted to feel as though he couldn’t go on directing another day, so he chose to retire before reaching that point.

At the end of a career chock-full of successes, Leckrone cited his finest accomplishment as seeing his students achieve greatness themselves in becoming leaders and living up to their full potential.

“The great thing about my announcing the retirement is I got so many letters from people that said, ‘You changed my life,’” Leckrone said with amazement. “And when somebody says that, that’s a huge impact.”

Looking forward, Leckrone said he hopes the traditions of the band continue on, even if his name is no longer associated with them.

No new director has been announced yet, but returning band members will maintain their positivity and enthusiasm, according to O’Donnell.

The appreciation band members feel for Leckrone is mutual. He realized he wasn’t the only one laboring to make this final year special: The band was putting in the extra effort as well.

“They’ve never expressed it to me verbally, but I do sense that they understand that it’s an important finale for me, this whole year,” Leckrone said. “I get the sense that they’re working really hard to do the best they can to make it a good year for us all.”

Leckrone was right about the band recognizing the importance of his last year, and the emotion as the season ends is an overwhelming sense of gratitude from band members and fans alike, many of whom were brought to tears at Saturday’s game.

“Those of us in the band feel so lucky to have been in Mike’s band, especially for his final years,” O’Donnell said. “He’s a legend. He’s a person like no other, and we can’t thank him enough for what he’s done to the Wisconsin band as a whole.”

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