As of today, the weather forecast for this Saturday is a little iffy for October — mid-80s for the high, with a chance for rain in the afternoon.
That can change, for better or for worse, by the time Saturday actually arrives, but either way, organizers of the annual Washington High School Marching Band Festival will be ready for it.
WHS hosted its first marching band festival 50 years ago in 1968. Since then, it has become one of the most prestigous in the state, beloved by students, parents and even the judges.
Troy Bunkley, who served as WHS band director from 1994 to 2016, said year after year he always heard rave reviews about the festival.
“When I was taking the judges back to the airport after the festival, the comments they would make or the notes they would send me afterward were always about how impressed they were with the community, the school and the parents,” said Bunkley.
“That created just a huge sense of pride for me that we could have that kind of response from total strangers who were popping into our community for 24 or 48 hours, and they walked out saying, ‘Wow!’ ”
Always held the first Saturday in October, the WHS Marching Band Festival brings thousands of students from all across the region to town for parade competitions on the streets of Downtown Washington and field competitions at Washington High School.
Some 2,200 students from 31 schools are expected to compete here this Saturday.
Prestigious is a word that both Bunkley and Gene Hunt, who served as WHS band director from 1964-’94 and organized the first marching band festival here, used to describe the event.
“It’s a model for many of the newer, younger competitions out there,” said Bunkley, noting, in particular, how the contest is run has been a model for designing band festival competitions around the state.
First Band Festival Here Was in 1968
When Hunt was hired as WHS band director in 1964, there were about 60 students in the band. There was no football program at the school yet, so while the band did perform some marching activities, it was nothing like what people know today, said Hunt.
Yet knowing that was the direction the school was headed, Hunt in 1965 took his band students to Central Methodist Marching Festival in Fayette to observe field shows. That fall, his WHS students marched their first field shows.
Then in 1968, Hunt organized the first marching band festival in Washington, the Four Rivers Conference Marching Band Festival.
To help it grow, Hunt made it an invitational festival in 1969, but kept the name the same. Then in 1970, the name was changed to the WHS Marching Band Festival, as it’s known today.
The first invitational festival was held Oct. 11, 1969, on the Washington City Park football field, since WHS didn’t have a football field of its own yet, said Hunt.
The first judges were John Patterson, of Columbia Hickman High School, Darrell Hendon of Fulton High School, and Carl Walker of East Central College.
There were 11 schools participating in the parade and 10 in the field competition.
“The festival really grew once it became an invitational,” said Hunt. “It started becoming a major deal.”
In 1993, for the festival’s 25th anniversary, there were 46 schools competing, and the program listed 111 different schools that had competed at the festival over the 25 years.
In fact, at one time there were so many schools competing that the field competition had to be started even before the parade competition had finished.
“We couldn’t possibly get it all in otherwise,” said Hunt.
“For a lot of years, we had 40 to 50 schools a year and 4,000 to 5,000 kids a year here. That was possible then, because when we started there were very few marching festivals.”
Those numbers are nearly impossible to duplicate these days, mainly because on any given Saturday during the competition season, there are five to six or more festivals for schools to chose from, Hunt pointed out.
There were two years during Hunt’s tenure that the band festival had to be canceled — in 1986, due to a flood (it was rescheduled, but that never worked out) and in 1988 due to rain.
Bunkley said weather was always at the forefront of his mind the week leading up to the festival.
“You always had to be flexible up until 24 hours in advance to know if it was going to be a cold festival, a warm festival or just a beautiful festival,” he said. “We adapted to the environmental conditions on the fly, yearly, whether it was hotter and we got more ice, or colder and we got more hot chocolate.”
The majority of band festivals saw “beautiful” weather, he recalled, but there were a couple of years there were rain delays and at least once there were adaptations, where schools performed on the track.
“That was late in the day after the field just got too slippery,” Bunkley said. “Not everybody stayed for that. Some went home.”
Field Shows Evolved
When the marching band began performing during halftime at football games, the original concept was to do a different show every week.
“That’s what we did when we first started,” said Hunt.
“It evolved while I was still teaching that you do your competition show. For the first game, you might get the opener ready. And by the second home game, you might have your second and third drill on the field. And three or four weeks later, you’d have your closer on the field.
“The drills became so much more complex and the music was so much harder, because you had to have music with a lot of highs and lows. It wasn’t just going down the field playing a march,” said Hunt. “You had a lot of emotions, a lot of loud and soft, it became much more musical, more like a concert event on the field, with drill to it.”
Today’s field shows are far more intricate than any from the ’70s, ’80s or even the ’90s, said Hunt. Everything has become much more sophisticated.
More Than One-Person Operation
As the size of the WHS Marching Band Festival grew, it quickly became more than a one-person operation. Hunt credits his many assistants with making both the band program and the festival a success.
The assistants were always key to making sure the festival ran smoothly, said Hunt.
“They ran the parade downtown. They got it organized . . . And also before the festival begins, they assemble all the judges’ sheets . . . they play a significant part in running the festival,” he noted.
By the time Bunkley took over the festival in ’94, it was large and well -established. That felt rather intimidating for him, he said.
“Knowing it had been such a fantastic contest, and I had never run a contest before — I had participated in them, but never run one myself — I was nervous, but Gene’s notes made it very easy,” said Bunkley. “He had a time line written out that listed what to do for the festival and when to do it.
“That’s exactly what I followed,” he said.
Looking back, Bunkley said he didn’t make many changes to the festival, just tweaked some of the classifications and judging styles. Under Bunkley’s leadership, the festival changed to caption judging, where each judge only evaluates a specific aspect of the competition, rather than all judges evaluating everything.
“That had become the standard for all competitions by that point,” he said.
It wasn’t long after the marching band program began to grow that band parents came together to form a WHS Band Boosters club. They quickly grew to be a key part of the festival’s success each year.
They initially came together only to lend Hunt a hand in getting things done.
“Those first years, I ran everything — the concession stand, the show, everything,” he recalled.
Then Gloria Uhrmann, who had children in the band, had the idea to create a booster club, and she called on her cousin, Ruth Wood, who also had children in the band, to help.
“Originally we did things like make sure the uniforms were in good condition when the kids were going on the field, and we chaperoned them on bus trips, and it was mostly helping the kids out,” said Wood. “Somehow we got into bake sales and fundraising too.”
She and all of those early Band Boosters parents laugh at that idea now, mainly because they distinctly remember Hunt telling them the boosters were not going to be about making money. He remembers that too.
“We said the purpose of the group was to assist the band director,” Hunt recalled, “to lighten the load, it would not be a money-making organization. We laugh about that now, because that’s what it became very much, and the band program couldn’t have survived without that.”
At the marching band festival, the boosters took over manning the concession stand, among other things.
“The concessions grew so large that as the volunteers retired from their jobs over the years, they left written instructions on how to do things,” said Hunt.
Band directors from other schools would call him to ask how he organized concessions and such, and he would tell them, he didn’t.
“I explained that I ran the marching events — I get the judges, I take care of the judging forms, tabulating, everything associated with the parade and field shows.
“The boosters do all the extra things — they direct traffic, secure the high school field so only certain cars get on campus, they direct the buses . . . ”
And many parents stayed in their volunteer roles with the boosters long after their children had graduated, said Hunt. Some continued to volunteer for 20 and 30 years and ended up seeing their grandchildren participate in the band festival.
“It was amazing how some people would continue volunteering year after year,” Hunt remarked.
‘Our Band Family’
Today’s WHS Band Boosters continue to hold fundraising activities to support the band so it can compete in marching band, sectionals, drumline, winter winds and guard.
“Even though it seems like a constant struggle, we have an amazing parent support and fundraising capability to keep band member’s costs to one of the lowest in our region,” said Julie Figura.
Like the first WHS Band Boosters, today’s members say they enjoy the work that it takes to support the band.
“It’s fun to be a part of a fun parent network,” said Figura. “To those parents of kids coming into high school band, or the parents already here, once you submit registration, you are a WHS Band Booster. Your ideas matter!
“I have enjoyed getting to know parents and other kids in band,” she added. “Instead of me referring to ‘the’ band boosters, it feels more like ‘our band family.’ ”
One of the best aspects of the WHS Marching Band Festival is the venue, said Bunkley.
“It’s unique because the concessions are up above the contest, so you can go to the concession stand and truly not miss anything,” he said. “You can see the contest, you can hear everything. It’s really unique in that regard.
“That’s another thing a lot of people talk about. And when the fall color kicks in and those trees are turning, it’s really neat,” Bunkley remarked.