The Blue Devils - Simply Amazing


“Amazing!” That was all I could even begin to think when I first saw the Blue Devils 23 years ago. “Simply amazing.” I had never seen anything like drum corps, much less the way the Devils did it. Who would have imagined that my journey from being a newspaper publisher in Mississippi to becoming an Episcopal priest in California, would get to include becoming president of the board of that incredible group I watched that hot August day.

A total drum corps newbie, I showed up in 1979 to watch DCI finals. We didn’t know anything except that we had enjoyed watching and teaching band. I had caught a glimpse of The Bridgemen on PBS a couple of times, and when the finals came 90 miles from home in Fulton, Mississippi, my sister, Rubye Del, my husband, Kevin and I loaded up and went to Birmingham Alabama.

After sitting in the stands for three days watching EVERY SINGLE corps, we were hooked. DCI finals have played a part in our summer vacation plans every year since then.

First of all I have to admit that even though I absolutely loved the Blue Devils show -- the music was incredible and the performance impeccable – I was suspicious of them on general terms. They were just TOO good. They came all the way from California. Their staff was all dressed up and they had a golf cart to haul their equipment in and out of the stadium while others hauled things by hand. They must have A LOT of money, I thought. And when they won it was so easy to think, “Well, they are so well-funded that was easy for them. I think I’ll root for some underdog.”

It wasn’t until many years later when I got involved with the Blue Devils that I realized that drum corps had taught me yet again that one rarely has the whole picture when simply viewing something from the outside. Especially someone or something that looks successful. Just a few minutes conversation with some of the folks who were involved with BD back in 1979 will disabuse you of the notion that what they were doing was a piece of cake.

David Gibbs (who was the drum major that year and is now the Executive Director of BD), Mike Moxley (a staff person at the time) and Jeff DeMello and Chris Nalls (marching members) have told me stories about that summer and how they overcame almost impossible odds to even get on the road. They barely had enough money to make it out of California, much less to travel across the country. Hard work, perseverance and excellent teaching are what put the Blue Devils on top that summer (and many since then) not money!

A lot has changed in Blue Devil world since then, but there is still quite a disparity between what the audience sees from the stands, and the effort that is required to make what the kids are doing on the field seem easy! Thirty-plus support staff on the road (many, many of them complete volunteers), hundreds of gallons of Gatorade, blistered feet, last minute housing site changes, tires blowing out on busses, and Dave Gibbs still worrying every night about the millions of things that could go wrong --- including, but absolutely not limited to, whether there will be enough money to make it through the season?

The second thing I’ve learned from being involved in the world of drum corps is that it is more fun to be involved than it is to sit in the bleachers and watch. For about 15 years from the first show we saw we tried to make as many regional shows as possible and almost always went to finals. We’ve been Friends of DCI supporting the activity and have enjoyed that, because don’t get me wrong, watching is a kick in the pants, too.

But the day in the early 90’s that I walked into Murrah High School in Jackson, Mississippi, and volunteered to be the “color guard sponsor” was one of the best days in my life. Over the next four years I went from spending a few hours a week, to being essentially the volunteer assistant band director --- not just teaching the color guard, but doing everything from writing drill to working with the school board to get permission to hold occasional practices on real football fields, too.

My appreciation of the drum corps activity grew exponentially. I watched with a different eye. I began to have a grasp of what it meant to be on that field in the first place … and how important it was to help kids learn the excitement of doing something really well.

In a way that would take far more words to explain than I have space for here, helping the kids at Murrah was one of the critical pieces in my life that led me to California to seminary and ultimately to my life as a priest in the Episcopal Church. I guess the easiest way to explain the connection is that I couldn’t spend day after day trying to help those kids understand how important it was for them to learn to work for excellence so that they could apply that approach to other things in their lives that they really wanted to do, without waking up and realizing that I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do!

My biggest regret about moving to California is that I haven’t been able to continue working with kids in the direct way that was so important to me in Mississippi. But, since lesson number three for me from the drum corps world is that investing in kids is one of the best investments one can ever make, I guess it was inevitable that one day I would find a way, albeit a less hands-on way, to be involved in helping kids by being involved with the Blue Devils.

My involvement started out almost immediately when our daughter, B.J. Harden Jones, decided the year we moved here that she wanted to see if participating in drum corps activities was as much fun as watching. Through the encouragement of then drum major James Gulke whom she had met on a flight back home from DCI in Orlando, she decided that I should call Blue Devils to find our more about the ‘B’ corps. The next few months were excruciating as she became the new kid on the block at age 16, in an organization that starts some kids as young as 7 or 8. But she stuck with it, and through the help and encouragement of BD staffers Mundy Viar, Annette O’Dello and Beth Carlin and dozens of other teachers and friends, she fell in love with being on the field.

That summer, her friend, and my former student Brian Greer came from Mississippi to live with us and to march in the ‘B’ Corps with B.J. He fell in love with it, too. Unfortunately for B.J. and me, he decided the next summer to try out for the Cavaliers. And it was absolutely uncanny watching this kid who I started with a flag when he was 14 years old, age out in Buffalo as Guard Sergeant for the Cavvies.

And during the years with B.J. being in the Blue Devils, it has gotten better and better. About two years ago, I began to take an active role in leadership on the board. Budgets, insurance, fund-raising, alumni and donor events, staff contracts began to be filtered in with the joy of watching and teaching and being with kids. Maybe it isn’t as directly close to the kids as my relationship with drum corps used to be, but if there aren’t people who will do what I and hundreds of other board members around the country do, there wouldn’t be drum corps …

And this year, B.J.’s age out year, I’ve gone over the edge. Almost doing it all … not teaching, but eight Blue Devils lived with us for several weeks during practice this spring, and over the summer I’ve come to know almost every guard member by name. I feel as if I’ve been able to help a few by listening and being there, my involvement has become even richer.

In 1979 I discovered how exciting watching drum corps could be. In the 90’s I discovered what it took to put a guard on the field. This year, being president of the Blue Devils and having been “guard mom” to quite a few of them, AND with, B.J. aging out after being in the A corps for two years and spending more than five years overall with the Blue Devils, this year’s finals is going to be the most amazing yet. Simply amazing. I can’t wait.

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