The following article featuring BRBAA appeared in the September/October 2013 edition of the Cornell Alumni Magazine in the Alma Matters department.
Club Spotlight: Big Red Bands Alumni Association
At Homecoming, alumni of the Big Red Marching Band and Big Red Pep Band will gather for a big celebration: the dedication of a new practice facility behind Schoellkopf Crescent on Kite Hill. It was launched with a lead gift from former members David Fischell ’75, PhD ’80, and Sarah Thole Fischell ’78, MEN ’79, whose children were also in the band. The new facility will offer more practice and storage space—and move the bands out of their home of more than fifty years, a cramped room in Barton Hall.
The Big Red Bands Alumni Association (BRBAA) is almost done raising the $1 million it needed to build the facility— a major milestone in that organization’s history, which has long worked to provide financial support for both bands. The Alumni Association was founded in the early Eighties out of financial need for the marching band. “When I was a freshman in 1978, the music department told us that within three years they would stop financial support of the band,” says Stacey Hunt Montalto ’82. “For the next two years we tried all sorts of fundraising options, but it wasn’t enough.” When Montalto was elected student head manager in her junior year—and facing the band’s potential dissolution—she took a huge step. Gathering all the financial data she could find, she presented her case to the Department of Athletics as to why it should support the band. “They had a limited budget, but they were able to give us money, and we became associated with Athletics,” Montalto recalls. “We were also very lucky because the assistant in that office was Georgian Leonard, who loved the band and took us under her wing. For the next two decades, she would do whatever she could to support the band. It was all out of the goodness of her heart.”
But the Athletics funding wasn’t enough. Luckily, former drum major Dwight “Duke” Vicks II ’54, MBA ’57, entered the picture. His daughter, Cathy Vicks ’80, was serving as drum major during Montalto’s freshman year; son Dwight III ’84, MBA ’91, would eventually become drum major himself. Vicks saw the desperate times the band was facing and rallied his classmates. With the aim of providing ongoing financial support, the Big Red Bands Alumni Association was founded in 1982, with Vicks as president and Montalto as vice president. With Leonard’s help, BRBAA began to work with students to hold phonathons, reaching out to alumni to ask them to support the band. “It was probably the first time a student group pitched its alumni for a major financial undertaking,” Montalto says. “To this day, the students still do it. And they know that once they leave the band, they will be expected to support the band the same way, so there is a natural evolution and financial support has grown.”
However, BRBAA knew that phonathons would cover only annual operating expenses and not long-term needs such as instrument and uniform replenishment. So in the mid-Eighties, it created an endowment fund. Chaired by Vicks, the successful campaign was launched with a 1989 Carnegie Hall concert celebrating the retirement of the band’s longtime music advisor, Marice Stith.
BRBAA has also taken on an advisory role, helping to guide the student leadership of both bands. “There’s an important part of BRBAA that is almost as valuable as the financial aspects,” says current president Lowell Frank ’99, MD ’03, “and that’s the empowerment of the student leadership— whether it’s offering advice and experience, providing continuity over the years, or serving as a liaison between University units. It’s challenging at times, because our involvement will morph each year as different students are elected to leadership positions, but preserving the student-run nature of the band is very important.”
In addition, BRBAA helps make sure that alumni are connected with the band and to each other. Since 1981, former members have been invited to play on the field at halftime of the Homecoming game. BRBAA also hosts get-togethers at road games or when the pep band travels. “We’re trying to adapt our communications strategy to get information out to our alumni and supporters in a more timely manner, through an evolving Web presence and social media,” says Frank. “We are also cultivating our relationships within the University to improve communication on campus, and we’re working on more long-term financial planning.”
While the band has come a long way—from its original status within ROTC to the admittance of women in 1971 to the new facility on Kite Hill— there is nostalgia for times past. But alumni know things need to change. “Many of us will miss Barton Hall; small, cramped, under-ventilated quarters do lead to a lot of bonding,” says Frank. “Still, many of us alumni are a little bit jealous of their fantastic space and the larger symbolic role it can play for the students. Their time, dedication, spirit, and sweat do matter to Cornell— and they should know that the work they do is appreciated.”
The Big Red Bands facility dedication is set for 11:30 a.m. on the Saturday of Homecoming.