The Lanciers: Fort Dodge’s young ambassadors

Paul Stevens

Their drums and their bugles have been silent now for nearly 50 years. Teenagers when they marched together as one, these Baby Boomers are now in their 60s and 70s.

But for the many alumni of the Fort Dodge Lanciers who are spread throughout the country, the memories of marching in the drum and bugle corps as ambassadors of Fort Dodge in the 1950s and 1960s will never completely fade away. Nor will their appreciation for what the experience meant to their lives.

“The work ethic, teamwork, is a given, but the enduring friendships are priceless,” said Paulette Harris, who played the baritone bugle from 1965-69 and now lives in Greene, Iowa. “I have friends that go back over 50 years from the Lanciers. I know that no matter how many years pass without being in touch, if I needed help, they would be there for me. As I would for them. Unconditionally, sometimes even more than a family.”

Kay Hughes Reed, of Grand Junction, Colorado, said her years as a member of the corps’ color guard from 1964-68 were “some of the best years of my life.”

“I can’t begin to tell you what the Lanciers meant to me — my escape for much of the summer,” she said. “All of the adults, whatever their role with the corps happened to be, treated all of us like their own kids. When I say we were a family, I MEAN we were a family. We were taught discipline and respect and pride in ourselves and each other. It changed my whole outlook on life. It is definitely responsible for the person I am today.”

The Fort Dodge Lanciers Drum and Bugle Corps — Reed calls them “Fort Dodge’s Young Ambassadors” – was formed in 1955. During its 15 years of existence, hundreds of young people and their adult sponsors took part in the corps — competing in state and national competitions and marching in parades that included President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural parade in Washington, D.C.

The Lanciers’ early predecessors were the Fort Dodge American Legion Post 130 Drum and Bugle Corps, which was founded in 1923, and the Fort Dodge Drum and Bugle Corps, which was founded as a Boy Scout activity, sponsored by Post 130, open to boys age 9 to 15. Two years later, the Legion assumed full sponsorship of the corps and opened membership to all interested, allowing them to perform until they were 21. In 1959, the all-girl color guard was added to the corps, performing both with the larger corps, and competing as an independent unit that won eight consecutive state titles.

The founder and manager of the Lanciers until the late 1960s was El Presley. His grandson, Wade Presley, who today is band director at Nevada High School, said his grandfather was an award-winning tuba player from Sac City who in high school won a regional music competition in Omaha that landed him a scholarship to Coe College. “But in the Depression Era he didn’t have the bus fare and instead he served in the Navy in World War II,” Wade said. “The pay to be a radio operator was better than the pay for a band member, so he did that instead of continuing his music career. But his love for music stayed and turned into forming the Lanciers.”

“My grandfather wrote some of the music the Lanciers played, and he would go to (Fort Dodge bandmaster) Karl King and say, ‘Hey, can you look at this and help me out?'”

The Lanciers won the Iowa American Legion state championships in 1966 and 1967, and the Iowa VFW state championship in 1968. Dodger Stadium was their home venue, and former Fort Dodge resident Greg Sells, of Carmichael, California, remembers vividly his first experience in seeing them compete, in the summer of 1959 when he was 12 years old.

“Within 10 minutes of the start of the competition I was hooked,” Sells said. “Each team was dressed in beautiful uniforms, large colorful flags were waving in unison, the marching was quick and precise, drums and horns were seemingly everywhere, and the music was not only fun to hear but you literally felt it. Everyone sat on one side of the field. As each group performed and turned to face the opposite side, the sound was muffled a bit, but when they turned and marched toward the audience it was like a freight train went by in front of you. Loud, powerful music. What an experience. Almost 59 years later and I can still recall that evening.”

Most will say that by far the highlight of their Lanciers’ history was being selected with the Coe College ROTC Band to represent Iowa in JFK’s Inaugural Parade in Washington on Jan. 20, 1961. In just several days, the Drum Corps Boosters and the Lanciers raised the $5,500 needed to make the trip,

Bob Dunker, of Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, played soprano bugle for the corps and recalls, “it was a snowy day, which was very unusual for D.C. and all of the buses had a hard time getting around. All of us kids also got to see the historical sites in D.C., which was REALLY a BIG DEAL for a bunch of kids from Fort Dodge, Iowa. That was the farthest I had ever been from home at that time.” Dunker is retired after serving 20 years as president of Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City.

Doug Kozell, an architect in Madison, Wisconsin, who played the snare drum for the Lanciers from 1959-62, said the trip to Washington “was an epic journey for us, though we had no idea at the time of the cultural significance of an event related to a president who would be assassinated. I have many memories from that trip, including the bus ride when we gazed out the windows at the fiery steel mills we could see from the Chicago Skyway. It was an early experience of racial discrimination when we found segregated facilities in the bus terminals along the way. Our stop at Gettysburg introduced us to the Civil War. The parade itself was brutal: 13-degree weather with strong winds, and much time outside in the lineup waiting for our turn in the parade.”

The biggest downer, recalled former Lancier Steve Ryan: NBC, the television network covering the parade nationally, cut to a commercial just as the Lanciers got into camera range.

The trophies and accolades were treasured by members of the corps, when they competed at home and at venues across the country and in Canada (including performing at the World’s Fair in Montreal in 1967). They were the result of hours upon hours of weekly practice, throughout the year, during the summer at the old South Junior High School grounds and Crossroads Mall, and twice a week in the winter at the American Legion Hall.

“The Lanciers was a part of our lives all year around,” said Pam Osmanson Moeller, a flag bearer in the color guard from 1963-69. “We started in the fall and winter learning new routines and music, the color guard competed in Winter Guard in Minnesota, spring we put our routine together, and summer was practicing at the Penney’s parking lot, traveling, and performing all over. When we were getting close to competitions, we would practice after dark; when the lights shut off in the parking lot, our parents would shine their head lights on us so we could continue to perfect our routines.”

What they remember most is the camaraderie from being a member of the corps, friendships formed that last a lifetime and the life’s lessons learned as a result of being a Lancier. There was even at least one marriage that resulted.

“Some of my closest lifelong friendships came out of being part of the Lanciers,” said Mike Schlesinger, publisher of the Marshalltown Times Republican, “including my best friend — my wife, Julie (Fletcher). I marched with Julie for four years and then marched with her down the aisle — and that was almost 47 years ago!

“Julie and I actually knew each other from growing up together in St. Olaf Lutheran Church. In the Lanciers, I played the baritone bugle, and Julie was in the color guard,” Mike continued. “She started out as a flag carrier, later carried the American flag and ultimately became Color Guard Sergeant. Julie was a good friend of my sister, Ruth, who was also in the drum corps and who also played the baritone bugle. Julie spent a lot of time with my sister at our house, and my family loved her and always encouraged me to date her. I ignored them — until they quit suggesting it and that’s when I asked her out. We dated for five years and then got married in 1971. Most of the Lanciers attended our wedding. There was no Lancier music, but John Zuerrer, who was in the drum corps with us, sang at our wedding.”

Jim Tarbox, a retired newspaper and magazine reporter/editor in Maplewood, Minnesota, said the experience of being a Lancier “taught me a lot about teamwork, how to deal with both elation and disappointment in the pursuit of excellence, offered opportunities to travel that likely otherwise would not have been available, and developed life-long friendships.

“It also introduced me to a wide variety of musical styles, and largely steered my interest in pursuing a career in the newspaper business and writing about entertainment, especially music (though a couple of friends from the corps will tell you I was the only ‘tone-deaf’ music reviewer in the country. And it’s true that one of the appeals of being a bass drummer was that I had to learn only a single note). Today I remain involved in ‘the activity’ as both a board member of Minnesota Brass and as announcer for a variety of drum-corps and marching-band contests in the Twin Cities area. It also, however improbably, led to my participation with the Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band of St. Paul, of which I am currently drum major.”

Participation in the Lanciers led to a life’s career in music for Tom Ryan, of Whitewater, Wisconsin, who was a drummer in the corps from 1956-61. (His brother Steve also took part in the corps and marched in the Kennedy inaugural parade.) Tom played in the Fort Dodge Senior High band and orchestra, took part in A Cappella Choir and high school musicals, and played in the orchestra for the Men’s Civic Glee Club, the City Band under Karl King and the circus band.

“It was being in the corps and the choir that were the deciding factors in my choice of a career path,” he said. “The corps provided excitement, pageantry, drama, as did the choral setting with the addition of the beauty and passion of the human voice. (No wonder I love opera.) I wanted to continue to be a part of that and to impart these things to others at whatever level.

“I went to Cornell College for a degree in music education and continued to the University of Illinois for a master’s degree in choral music. For nearly 40 years, I taught vocal and instrumental music at all educational levels, including at the college level, my favorite level being elementary vocal music.”

Mike Tracy, who played tenor drum, believes his four years as a Lancier helped provide learning tools that translated to his participation in football and basketball at St. Edmond High School and when he later coached at a high school in Minnesota.

“We were instilled with the value of practice, when there was little margin for error in our drum and bugle corps competition,” said Tracy, who lives in Cherokee. “We were taught to be prepared, to compete hard, and to enjoy our victories as well as be gracious when we didn’t win. We learned to work together as a team. All of these experiences paid off in sports — and in my life in general.”

Mark Swedlund, who played the baritone bugle, followed his sister Nancy and brother Curt in taking part in the Lanciers, from 1964-69, and recalls their first trip to Chicago in 1965 where the Lanciers stayed in a National Guard Armory in Humboldt Park. The Guard was called up due to race riots, and the Lanciers’ buses had a police escort everywhere they went. Swedlund ended up returning to work in Chicago and staying for 30 years. “I now live in more sedate Sonoma County (California) and see my old buddies about once a year.

“I would say it impacted my life, because I have always loved to travel since, and ended up in a career in marketing and advertising that put me on the road a least once a month for 30 years. I have done business in all 48 contiguous states, Mexico and Japan and the U.K. Sometimes not as fun as taking a bus trip 10,000 miles a year with the Lanciers, but still OK. I had a partner in my ad agency who said he always liked to hire former band members — good team players who know how to solo when needed.”

Woody Wolfe, who retired from the Fort Dodge Fire Department as an assistant chief after 38 years and lives with his wife Laura in Spirit Lake, played a soprano bugle during his two years with the Lanciers. “Even though I was a member for a relatively short period of time,” he said, “the discipline that we learned, the friendships that I made and the memories that were created have lasted a lifetime. We traveled quite extensively. A couple of my favorites were a trip to South Milwaukee, where some of us swam in Lake Michigan, and a trip to Casper, Wyoming, even though a bunch of us caught food poisoning on the way back and had to be hospitalized. I also remembered that my late father absolutely loved watching the shows and chaperoned some of our trips. I have always been thankful for that. I think being in the Lanciers gave me a lifelong appreciation of music that I could have never otherwise have had.”

Roger Dunker, of Castle Rock, Colorado, played the bugle for the Lanciers from 1956-61 — including the JFK inaugural parade with his brother Bob — and was active in music until after college, when he began what would be a 42-year career as an executive in the financial-services industry.

Among his highlight memories: Every Monday evening after dinner having two hours of demanding marching and musical practice at the South Junior High athletic field, and the anticipation at the conclusion of a competition where all the participating drum and bugle corps would march back onto the field and stand at attention while the public address announcer would read the scores of each group, with the last one to be announced being the grand winner.

Dunker learned many lessons from his Lanciers days that applied to his professional life, including the value of leadership and coaching, keeping score to attain a target for success, discipline and teamwork from top to bottom, and having consistency and intensity of performance. “In my opinion, there is a very measurable correlation between those early formative years as an impressionable young member of the Fort Dodge Lanciers and my later years as a corporate executive.”

Schlesinger said that when he looks back at his Lanciers days, it is with appreciation to the “many adults who really made it possible for the drum corps to even exist. There were so many who gave countless hours to help the Lanciers become the best in the state and able to compete among the top corps in the country. That group included so many but the ones I remember most included Mitch and Gloria Hart, Joan and Gill Fletcher, Ernie Zuerrer, Bud Jergens, Ozzie Osmundson, George and LaDonna Savery and Denny Sweeney.”

Playing all types of horn and sharing drum-major duties with Ron Sell, J.R. Mater was a member of the corps for 10 years, until 1964 when he joined another corps, the U.S. Marine Corps.

In basic training, he said, the military bearing and marching skills from the Lanciers “really helped me. I was far ahead of the average recruit — standing at attention, keeping my eyes forward. I wasn’t getting yelled at as much as the others.” During his four years in airborne radar, he served two tours in Vietnam. He suffered a stroke 10 years ago, tied to the effects of exposure to Agent Orange, and today lives with his wife Linda in Silverton, Texas. He is proud to have served as the bugler playing “Taps” for the funeral services of more than 100 veterans during his time with the Lanciers.

Many factors led to the demise of the Lanciers in 1970, Tarbox said — dwindling resources, dwindling interest in participating, the military draft, among the major ones. The corps disbanded after a year-end competition in Dubuque.

“Somewhere I have the judges’ score sheets from that last show in Dubuque,” Tarbox said. “One of them wrote on his, ‘Good luck next year.’ Alas, there never was a next year … “

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