For Fort Dodge Lanciers, march of a lifetime at JFK’s inauguration 60 years ago
It was the march of a lifetime for the 53 boys and girls who represented Fort Dodge 60 years ago this month in the inauguration parade for President John F. Kennedy.
The Fort Dodge Lanciers Drum and Bugle Corps was one of two Iowa marching groups selected to take part in the Jan. 20, 1961, parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., before a million spectators for the inauguration of the youngest man ever elected to the presidency.
Now, six decades later, most of them retired and in their 70s, the Lanciers who marched on that frigid day in the nation’s capital — 39 boys and 14 girls, ages 11 to 16 – still recall the gratification of representing Fort Dodge in that special moment in their lives and the life’s lessons that it brought.
“One of the biggest things that we didn’t realize until later on,” said Bob Dunker, “is the thankfulness for Fort Dodge and how the community stepped forward with its love and helped us achieve this. The realization that nothing is given to you, that everything comes from hard work and dedication. Practice and perseverance and learning how to behave yourself in groups. I think we were all good ambassadors for Fort Dodge in Washington, D.C. I think that lasted a lifetime for every one of us.”
Dunker, of Dakota Dunes, S.D., whose career included 20 years as president of Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City, was joined by his younger brother Roger on the trip that took the Lanciers and their chaperones in two Greyhound buses – one for the boys, the other for the girls – on the 1,083-mile drive. Both played the tenor bugle.
“In a time with no iPads, no headphones, no electronic games, no nothing, on a bus for 18-20 hours straight, we all got along and had a good time,” recalled Roger Dunker, of Castle Rock, Colo., whose career in financial services included 25 years as a corporate executive. “Most of us had never been out of the state of Iowa. Our average age was 14. It was a totally different environment than today if you were on a bus.”
Steve Ryan, a teacher and principal in the Whitewater, Wis., school district and now a member of its school board, was a drummer for the Lanciers.
“I think that for everybody who went, it had to make an impact on your life,” he said. “I always enjoyed the music. Even today to be able to say I was in Kennedy’s parade. It’s just one of those things, once you’ve done it, you can’t undo it. It’s part of you.”
Months earlier, Sen. John Kennedy had visited Fort Dodge in his campaign for president. The Lanciers, sponsored by Post 130 of the American Legion, took part in a parade down Central Avenue that attracted thousands to catch a glimpse of the Democratic candidate.
National Democratic committeeman Donald J. Mitchell, a Fort Dodge attorney, was instrumental in getting Kennedy to visit Fort Dodge and later to get the Lanciers an invitation to the inaugural parade – “a day that advanced the pride of the people of Fort Dodge and the surrounding area,” said Albert Habhab, mayor of Fort Dodge at the time.
“It was a dream that many thought would not come through, but it did,” Habhab said. “Those that advanced that dream were the young men and women who were participants, and their parents and loved ones, and businesses in Fort Dodge.”
Dennis Spurlin, who played the bass bugle, recalled that day in December 1960 when he and fellow Lanciers learned the news.
“Needless to say, when we found out we had received an inaugural invitation, we were extremely excited,” said Spurlin, of Madison, Wis. “What a Christmas present for a 13-year-old! The Lanciers’ board and boosters developed a plan that included a complete itinerary for the trip as well as a detailed list of personal needs such as cold weather items. In the meantime, the corps members had to get permission slips from our parents and excuses from our schools (8th grade, South Junior High, for me). We had roughly two weeks to get all of this completed, which included rehearsal time.”
But first, there was money to be raised — $5,500 — to cover the cost of the trip in a fund-raising campaign called “On to Washington.” Ed Breen, owner of KQTV and KVFD, chaired the trip’s finance committee and Mayor Habhab proclaimed a Fort Dodge Lanciers Day for the city.
Roger Dunker said the Lanciers spent two days going to residences door to door asking for contributions, and sold Christmas trees and candy bars; in one day alone, they raised $2,000. An old car was donated and residents, led by Mayor Habhab, paid a fee per swing to demolish it. Fort Dodge businesses made contributions. And in the end, $7,378 was raised — most of it, small donations.
Budget restrictions did not allow all 110 members of the Lanciers to take part, so those interested took part in competition in practices twice a week, Dunker said, with Lanciers corps director El Presley making the final decision. Mrs. A.B. Churchill was leader of the girls’ Color Guard; Linda Posegate was the girls color sergeant.
“We had mandated practice 30 minutes a day,” Bob Dunker said. “There’s a much higher expectation in drum corps than marching in a high school band at Friday night games – precision, the ability to march in a military manner is just as important as playing an instrument. Every time the Rockettes perform, their precision reminds me of a drum corps. They’re not playing a musical instrument – but we’re not kicking our heels above our heads.”
On the evening of Jan. 17, the Lanciers’ buses left Fort Dodge for a journey that took them through Chicago and into Toledo for breakfast, then into Pittsburgh for lunch and arrival in Washington at 5:30 p.m. on the 18th.
“My dad, ‘Bud’ Kozel, was involved in fundraising for the trip and accompanied us as a chaperone.,” said Doug Kozel, of Madison, Wis., a Lanciers snare drummer. “I remember the trip as having a strong impact on me. I used to hang out at the front of the bus, and I still recall the wonderment of driving through a building, the Chicago post office, and then passing along the river on Lower Wacker Drive to the bus station. I had never seen a city built in layers. Gary, Indiana still had giant steel mills and we could see their flames from Skyline Drive; they were amazing. The Greyhound terminal in Pittsburgh was in a grand building designed by HH Richardson, one of my favorites later during my career as an architect, so it left an impression, as did the evidence of segregation we saw in the restrooms separated by race. Our stop at Gettysburg was the first time I experienced the scope of destruction and loss of life that war could manifest as found in the battlefields and the many monuments.”
In Washington, planners made the trip memorable by organizing tours and educational activities “that were beyond amazing,” Spurlin said. “I remember visiting the galleries of both the Senate and House of Representatives in the U.S. Capitol. We visited the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, Iwo Jima Monument, Arlington National Cemetery and changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Mount Vernon. I’m sure I saw much more, but it was heady stuff for a 13-year-old.
“It wasn’t all educational, however. Most of had never been far from Iowa, let alone staying in a big hotel in Washington, D.C. I remember our first dinner at the hotel. It was quite a surprise and a moment of uncertainty for most of us when they served Swordfish, which seemed very exotic at the time. With four to a room, the corps members felt like it was a huge sleepover and enjoyed ourselves immensely.”
That enjoyment included water balloons, which were quite popular for 13- and 14-year-olds, Ryan said. “We were on the fourth floor of the Burlington Hotel (now the Hamilton Hotel), and it seems to me that limos down below got splattered by water balloons. Hanging out the windows, we pointed up to the rooms of a band two floors above us. It seems to me they got the blame.”
Ryan also recalled that somehow a Lanciers’ hat ended up on the top of Abraham Lincoln’s head during the Lincoln Memorial tour. “The guard somehow was easily distracted,” he said.
On inauguration day, the Lanciers were up at 4:30 a.m. for breakfast and out the door at 5:30, only to be greeted by eight inches of snow that had fallen overnight and brought Washington to a standstill. Roads had to be cleared for the buses to get to the start of the parade. It was 14 degrees with a 20 mph headwind from the north. “We marched in circles just to keep warm,” Ryan said. The Lanciers were placed halfway through the parade and on the march down Pennsylvania they played their signature song, “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and others, and in front of Kennedy at the reviewing stand, “Hail to the Chief.”
Back in Fort Dodge, viewers of NBC-TV’s telecast of the parade with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley as commentators watched anxiously as the Lanciers neared the reviewing stand as Huntley said, “Here comes the Lanciers of Fort Dodge, Iowa.” But he followed with, “We’ll be right back after this commercial.” And when the telecast resumed, the Lanciers – and the Coe College ROTC Band and Iowa Gov. Norman Erbe — had passed by the White House reviewing stand.
“TV portrayed or not,” wrote Herb Flambeck, veteran radio announcer from Des Moines, “the Lanciers are a snappy outfit. Their young standard bearer (Jim Bond) led them on a fast pace. Their music was stirring. The many thousands in the crowd loved them. And our guess is they enjoyed the historic outing, even though they did nearly freeze to death.”
The next morning, the Lanciers toured Mount Vernon — a special moment for Lancier Mitch Hart, who had visited there at the age of 1 — and left Washington on their buses at noon for the long drive back to Fort Dodge. Upon arrival at 5:30 p.m. the next day, the buses got a police escort into town and down Central Avenue for a reception at the Hotel Warden. There, Presley presented official inaugural medals to Mayor Habhab, Bud Kozel, Ed Breen, Donald Mitchell and Messenger editor Walter Stevens.
Five years later, the Lanciers would return to Washington after winning the Iowa State American Legion championship. Kay Reed recalls that the Color Guard competed on the Ellipse south of the White House. The temperatures were quite different: “This was in August and it was sooooooo hot and humid!! We had our new uniforms which were wool battle jackets, guard – wool skirts, and corps – wool pants plus shakos – I think most of us made it all the way through – but it was grueling!”
The Lanciers disbanded in 1970. Three decades later, Spurlin recalled that the Dubuque Colts Drum & Bugle Corps represented Iowa in the inaugural parade for Barack Obama in 2009.
“As an old Iowan,” Spurlin said, “I make contributions to the corps each year. As they were preparing for the trip to D.C., I sent a letter and check to Greg Orwell, an old friend and executive director of the Colts until last year. I told him what a privilege it was to represent Iowa in the parade. I pointed out that Barack Obama was only the 44th president in America’s history. I also told him to encourage his members to take in as much as possible because they would remember this trip for the rest of their lives – much the same as all of you.
“The evening before the parade, Greg read my letter to the entire corps and explained who the Fort Dodge Lanciers were and my long involvement in the activity. By coincidence, Dave Swaleson, assistant director for the Colts at that time grew up in Fort Dodge and marched with the Lanciers for about four years toward the end.”