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The final march: Mike Leckrone’s 50 years directing at UW-Madison football games nears end

November 19, 2018

It’s not yet 7 a.m. and students gather at UW-Madison’s practice field, shivering in the dark.

Without a word from their leader, and while most of their classmates are still asleep, the 260-some members of the UW Marching Band come to attention, ready to rehearse.

“Gooooood morning, Elm Drive!” band director Michael Leckrone’s voice booms, his headset carrying his game-day greeting to the street just east of the field.

The students start doing jumping jacks to get their blood pumping. A thermometer reads 37 degrees.

The band runs through its halftime show, a routine that changes every home game. For this particular game, the Nov. 3 contest against Rutgers, Leckrone came up with “Jersey Boys,” an arrangement filled with plenty of the high kicks and hip-popping that’s made the Badger Band so distinctive.

The sun rises and Leckrone moves to the tower positioned on the sidelines at the 50-yard line. From his perch, he picks at every imperfection.

“I sure see a lot of mistakes,” he says with a shake of his head. “Tubas, do it again.”

He corrects their spacing, fixes the way a particular note is played, reminds them that the balls of their feet, not the center, should hit the lines on the field. He does not praise them.

“That was better,” he says of their final run-through. “You’re going to get one more chance at 12:30 today.”

It’s a variation of a common refrain he tells his kids: You only get one chance to get it right.

And on Saturday, they’ll only get one more chance at Camp Randall under Leckrone, who will direct his last home football game after a 50-year career leading UW-Madison’s marching band.

A Wisconsin institution

Nostalgia has laced much of Leckrone’s last football season: In the back of his mind and in his assistants’ and students’ minds is a ticking clock, counting down the days, the rehearsals, the games he has left.

“Every event, someone will say, ‘This is the last time you’re going to do that,’” Leckrone said. “You’re only going to come on the field three more times. Two more times. Four more times. It’s a constant reminder. As we get closer to ‘the final curtain,’ as Frank Sinatra used to say, I think it’ll be more on my mind than ever.”

Since his first day — Sept. 1, 1969 — six chancellors and two acting chancellors have come and gone. He’s on his ninth football coach and directed halftime shows for 50 of Camp Randall’s 101 years.

“He represents the spirit of the university,” said Janice Stone, a former UW band member who has volunteered as one of Leckrone’s field assistants for 27 years. “When I think of the faces of the university, it’s the chancellor and Barry Alvarez and Mike.”

He’s also a rarity in the college band world: He is the marching band director but he is also the director of bands at UW-Madison, which means he is in charge of instruments, budgets and other administrative work. He also teaches.

Leckrone considered staying on as a music professor next year — he teaches one music course in the fall and two in the spring — but decided to retire fully at the end of this academic year.

His wife’s death in August 2017 — the love of his life, whom he met in seventh grade, married at 19 and spent 62 years with — factored into his decision. Since her passing, tucked into his black band jacket on game days is a photo of the two of them, surrounded by palm trees in Pasadena on their first trip to the Rose Bowl.

Leckrone’s health played a role as well. He had double bypass surgery in January 2017.

He also didn’t want to hear whispers that his time had passed, like a TV series that should have ended three seasons ago. He wants to end strongly, on a high note, like Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.”

“I wanted to not do it as a last gasp,” he said.

On Aug. 25, Leckrone told his students that this year would be his last. And he requested that this season be “business as usual.”

Students wiped away tears as Leckrone took long pauses and announced he would relinquish not only his baton, but an identity that has defined him.

Not a ‘sweetheart’

What the Camp Randall crowds see is a nice man who always sports a smile, still does the chicken dance at age 82 and looks as fondly at his students as at his six grandchildren.

What isn’t seen in the stadium is the hours of nitpicking on the practice field.

They don’t hear him screeching into his mic, “Hands! Watch the hand positions!”

They don’t see him throwing his clipboard from the tower only to ask a student to retrieve it after a two-minute diatribe about the trumpet players’ failure to “put some fight into it.”

They don’t catch that his request to play it “one more time” really means five more.

They don’t know how much he enjoys blowing his 35-year-old whistle, once, twice, three times in a row, however many times it takes for the students to stop playing so he can tell them what’s preventing them from achieving perfection.

“I don’t particularly have a reputation for being a sweetheart,” he allowed.

Halftime shows

Unlike the football games that sandwich the halftime shows, Leckrone has no final score on which to judge his success.

Cymbals clanging, drums beating, the Badger Band marches up and down the field as it’s done since 1885.

Leckrone’s assessment of the Nov. 3 show: “Pretty good,” but he says he likes to withhold judgment until he gets his hands on the film the following Monday.

Leckrone is always among the last to file off the field. He pats nearly every student’s shoulder or brushes their hand, dishing out a “good job” to those who look like they need it.

The students’ faces are red and their lungs out of breath after the 10-minute show, but they look pleased with themselves and the crowd’s reaction.

As Leckrone turns to head back to the end zone, one of his longtime assistants leans in and says to him what Leckrone has tried to forget all season: “Well, one more.”

‘Nobody like Mike’

Leckrone has the longest tenure of any marching band director, past or present, in the history of the Big 10, according to a survey submitted to each institution’s marching band director.

Mark Spede, president-elect of the College Band Directors National Association, pointed to just one current director with a tenure nearly as long as Leckrone’s. Arthur Bartner started at the University of Southern California in 1970, one year after Leckrone.

Leckrone was the clear frontrunner at UW-Madison, said H. Robert Reynolds, who led the university’s hiring search for the marching band director in the late 1960s.

Reynolds drove down to Butler University where Leckrone had worked his way up to band director just a few years after earning his music degree there. It was clear Leckrone had high energy and a special rapport with students.

Born and raised in Indiana, Leckrone would have been happy staying at Butler for his entire career.

“But you get ambitious,” he said.

Reynolds never expected Leckrone to stay so long. Directing marching bands is “a young man’s game” that people usually trade in for teaching or concert band positions.

Leckrone also didn’t expect to spend 50 years directing. Like many in higher education, he figured the next step in the career ladder was administration.

He tried it out, about 20 years ago, when he served as assistant director of the School of Music before quickly realizing it wouldn’t work. He missed making music.

Leckrone specifically requested not to serve on the search committee for his successor. Having the next director looking over his shoulder at the last one wouldn’t work, he said.

“I think Wisconsin’s been very lucky to have had him for 50 years,” Reynolds said. “And I think this transition is going to be difficult to satisfy the students, the alumni, the crowd at the games. They’re going to expect a Mike Leckrone band. Don’t get me wrong, there’s good marching band directors out there. But there’s nobody like Mike.”

Ideas unfulfilled

At 82, Leckrone still works full time, spending a few hours working from his Middleton home in the morning before driving his Ford Escape to campus between 9 and 10 a.m. Among his pre-set Sirius XM radio channels is Frank Sinatra.

He holds rehearsals from 3:45 to 5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays and handles administrative and teaching duties before practice.

Leckrone gets home at about 6 p.m. and works until 11 p.m. on whatever needs to get done.

“There’s always the next show, always the next performance you have to get ready for,” he said.

He has ideas in his head for next year that will go unfulfilled.

Establishing traditions

Many Badgers fans come for the football and stay for the band.

It wasn’t always that way.

Leckrone took over the band at a “low ebb” in its 133-year history. The football team hadn’t won in 24 consecutive games. With the Vietnam War at its peak, the idea of putting on a uniform and marching around wasn’t popular, and Leckrone fielded fewer than 100 students in his first year.

Whereas others saw setbacks, Leckrone saw an untapped opportunity, a “sleeping giant.”

His 50-year career was not without some bad headlines: hazing, lewdness by band members, and an assistant director who resigned after reported inappropriate sexual behavior.

Leckrone suspended the band from a single home game in 2008, an action he said was wrong in hindsight because it punished all of the students instead of solely the offenders.

As the Badgers football team’s success grew and universities recognized how much money could be made in college athletics, the unbridled band faced new restrictions.

“There are times when I would love to play ‘On Wisconsin’ because I think the crowd needs it and the team needs it, but the script says it’s time to show the whirling hamburgers or whatever,” he said, referring to the advertisements shown on the Jumbotron.

Leckrone is most in his element during the Fifth Quarter, the 15-minute post-game show born in the early 1970s out of Leckrone’s own boredom at playing the same old songs.

“I realize what I do is not the most important thing in the world,” Leckrone said of his legacy. “I haven’t contributed to any great discoveries. I’ve brought a few smiles to people’s faces.”

Moments of happiness

On game days, Leckrone insists on walking from his office to the stadium and back, about two miles round-trip.

He rests occasionally on a stool in the band’s section, particularly in the second half, but is ready to hop on his ladder and strike up the band whenever the Badgers score.

Each year’s group of students has its own personality. Some are a little flaky. Some are tricksters, pulling pranks on Leckrone during practice. This year’s bunch, because of the circumstances, is more serious.

Leckrone has a theory he shares with all of his students about “moments of happiness.”

“Your mind lives on the moments of happiness,” he says. “They sometimes don’t last long and aren’t as big as we think they are, but if you can find a lot of them, you can live on them.”

With 1:06 on the clock and the Badgers ahead 31-17, restlessness sets in among the thousands at Camp Randall on Nov. 3.

Some of the spectators start filtering out of the stadium, hoping to beat the rush in the parking lots. Bucky Badger continues to work the crowd.

The showman stops watching the game, slowly turning himself around, capturing views of Camp Randall from every angle of his perch at the end zone, taking it all in — a moment of happiness.

Coda

After the game, band members gather in the courtyard of the Humanities building, looking up at their leader on the second-floor balcony. At least a hundred others — some parents of the students, others longtime band supporters — squeeze in to listen.

Gone is the voice that boomed over the stereo waking up Elm Drive, replaced with one speaking so softly that the crowd leans in, straining to hear his second-to-last dismissal speech.

The next couple of weeks will go by fast, Leckrone tells them, and himself, as he blinks back tears. He repeats one phrase four times: “Don’t take it for granted.”

Linking arms, the band sings “Varsity,” the tune that caps the end of every dismissal.

Leckrone says he can’t imagine life beyond this academic year. What will happen when there are no more arrangements to dream up in his head? Where will he watch next season’s football games? What will he do every Tuesday through Friday from 3:45 to 5:30?

He still has his last home football game on Saturday. There will be hockey games and basketball games and concert requests around the state. And in the spring, he will direct his final concert.

After dismissal, fans flood Leckrone for hugs and thank him for his service. Young children come up to him for photos or autographs. Much of this season has already felt like the last game, just an extended version of it.

Leckrone finally returns to his office, Room 4557, where dozens of framed photos and plaques adorn the walls. Two more frames lean against his desk, waiting to be hung.

“I’m running out of space,” he said. “But I’m running out of time, too.”

Photos: UW band director Mike Leckrone approaches swan song

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“I realize what I do is not the most important thing in the world. I haven’t contributed to any great discoveries. I’ve brought a few smiles to people’s faces.” Michael Leckrone

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