Still Big Blue
“HEY!” was the immediate, ingrained response from about 350 former RHS band members, rattling the roof of The Ranch, in an event that proved there’s still plenty of “Big” in “Big Blue.”
Perry and former directors Bill Grusendorf and Don Thoede, along with some special guests, were on hand for a giant gathering fueled by equal parts of memories, energy and love.
“It just grew,” Perry marvelled. “The prospect of a band reunion got mentioned on Facebook this spring and it took on a life of its own.”
Organizers are estimating total attendance between 350 and 450 combined for afternoon and evening events.
“We think as many as 350 were there during the day,” Perry said. “We had more than 100 that night. I’m sure that some of them were the same folks, but not all.”
‘Right place, right time’
Grusendorf, who started the band’s uninterrupted 30-year march of excellence, drew “rock star” treatment during the event.
The retired San Saba ISD superintendent— who continues to serve as priest at San Saba’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Church—was mobbed by former students as he entered the building and the adoration never let up.
During a brief, informal program which ended the afternoon session, an emotional “Mr. G” expressed the depths of what the Rockdale experience still means to him and his family.
“I distinctly remember driving into Rockdale in 1957 for the first time with my wife and daughters,” he said. “This was sure the right place at the right time.”
By 1972, Grusendorf had built the band, which often reached the 140 to 150 membership range, into one of the most successful, and respected, music programs in the state.
“The last time I got up on the podium in the band hall in 1972, I could see the faces of every student who passed through the band program in those 15 years,” he said.
‘30 years of Bill’
That success continued, uninterrupted, under Thoede and Perry.
“Bill was my mentor,” Thoede said. “He trained me. Then Jim came in and we worked together and then Jim took over.”
“So that’s why this band was so successful,” Thoede said. “You really had 30 years of the same guy. You had 30 years of Bill.”
“This is one of the most wonderful days of my life,” Thoede said.
Thoede directed the band from 1972 to 1981 and Perry from 1981 to 1985.
Perry confessed to another motivator during his tenure.
“Pure fear,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t just let it go downhill after what Bill and Don had done.”
Perry praised Rockdale’s band students, noting they added the extra dimension of dedication and willingness to work that lifted the bands of that era from “good” to “great.”
He recalled a hot summer practice early in his tenure where, dissatisfied with the band’s effort, Perry left the football field parking lot and returned to the band hall, discouraged.
“I had been in my office when the door opened and one of the band members came in and started screaming at me, ‘Mr. Perry you can’t do this to us.’ And she kept it up several minutes, over and over, before I realized what had actually happened.”
Perry returned to the parking lot. “The band was still there. All of it. Melissa Wolf, who was the drum major, had kept them standing at attention, for 20 minutes, waiting for me to come back,” he said.
“Wow,” Perry said. “I thought ‘let’s get back to work’.”
‘I’m here to collect’
There were many highlights but none drew louder laughs than when Grusendorf praised accompanist Gerry Selden-Janik for her many years of volunteer work with the band’s spring solo-ensemble entries.
“She did all this, for all these years, and never asked for a penny,” Grusendorf said.
That prompted Selden-Janik, standing in the wings, to fly to the stage, grab the microphone and proclaim “I’m here to collect!”
• Band members toured the new RHS band hall, located inside the remodeled-expanded high school. The old band hall was razed.
• Lee “Sparky” Thomason, RHS Class of 1981, composed and presented a musical selection, incorporating several familiar band themes.
• Several former band members took the stage with the Bluesadillos, who played on The Ranch stage during the evening.
• Cliff Simms, a member of the first RHS band in 1939, was recognized during the evening session. Simms said four members from that 1939 band survive.
• Films and audio of past Big Blue Band performances, and the band’s 1980 trip to Mexico City, ran continuously onstage during the afternoon session.
• Band members from each era were called to the stage for group photos with Grusendorf, Thoede and Perry.
• Mayor Pro Tem Allan Miller and Lee Jenkins, Rockdale ISD school board president, teamed up to observe the special day by proclamation.
• Grusendorf, who started the tradition of playing “Exodus” at football games, was presented a rare original soundtrack of the movie.
‘Let’s do it again’
The get-together grew as a “grass roots” effort and those roots were still growing over the weekend.
“The next day (Sunday), I heard from so many people who said they weren’t able to attend, missed it for one reason or another and wanted to know when the next one was so they could attend,” Perry said.
“What I’ve heard is ‘let’s do it again’,” he said. “I think we need to do just that. We’ll try to set a date and let everyone know.”