by Peter Jakey–Managing Editor
It was a great day in the history of the Rogers City High School band program, and it happened 40 years ago while the country was in the midst of its bicentennial.
The country was celebrating its 200th year of independence and Rogers City band members were right in the middle of the biggest parties in Washington, D.C. and the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. It will be 40 years ago tomorrow, July 1, 1976, that they left.
“The excitement of being part of the country’s birthday celebration, left the biggest impression,” Mary Jo (Modrzynski) Vaughn who played flute and piccolo in 1976.
The Marching Hurons were not only Rogers City’s representatives for the birthday bashes, but the state’s ambassadors as well.
Three Greyhound buses transported 108-band members and chaperons more than a 1,000 miles.
Some of the students, which included eighth-graders all the way up to the 1976 graduates, had never been on a Greyhound or out of Michigan for that matter.
And what a contrast it must have been going from Third Street in downtown Rogers City to Constitution Avenue in D.C. and Market Street in Philadelphia.
The trip could not have been possible without a supportive community, who helped band members raise more than $10,000 to make the trip possible, but even after all this time, a lot of credit goes to band director Steve Bergmann, 70. He ensured band members were ready for the walks along the parade routes and for the heat.
The retired educator is alive and well in Naples, Florida. He just celebrated his 35th wedding anniversary on Monday.
Bergmann started his career in Indian River after graduating from Northern Michigan University in 1968. In 1971, he took a public school job in Las Vegas, Nevada.
That’s where principal Del Conley and superintendent Jack Newton found him and lured him back to northern Michigan to teach the Rogers City students in the band program.
“I am being very honest when I say this, it was the best thing that happened to me,” said Bergmann, of coming back to Michigan. “Rogers City was always a great music community. They hired me and it was a wonderful thing.”
Before the bicentennial year, Newton, who had a son in band, wanted the band to go out and perform somewhere during the celebratory year.
“I started thinking, where could we go?” said Bergmann. “What’s more Fourth of July than Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.?”
The administrators and board of education were on board, and so were the parade committees.
That was the easy part. The next step was to raise $10 K.
“Today, it would be $100,000,” he said. “That was a ton of money.” There were lots of supporters. Some businesses got behind the students with various promotions, including “Beef up the Band.”
The kids picked up rocks at the golf course and put on dinner shows to bring in money. “The outpouring for the kids was unbelievable,” said Bergmann.
The preparation was not easy, and started in November 1975. Band members drilled five and six nights a week all the way up until the Fourth of July, even though the students were out for the summer. Some of the marching took place on the runway of the airport.
“I remember doing a lot of endurance exercises because it was a long parade route,” said Mary Kroll Muszynski, who played mellophonium instead of the french horn she played in concert band.
“I remember picking rocks at the golf course and different fundraisers we did to raise money to go. I remember a long bus ride to Pennsylvania. I remember the cameras in the middle of the street that we had to watch as we marched through. We had fun doing some sightseeing and we made great memories!” Muszynski said.
“Practice, practice, practice,” said Diane (Vekaryasz) Delekta, who twirled a rifle.
“I recall weeks and weeks of diligent practices on the selection pieces of music as well as extra time spent on perfecting our marching skills,” said Terri Wenzel Orban. All the music had to be memorized, too.
“If you had Adidas sneakers with black stripes, we had to cover them with tape. Everything had to be perfect,” said Yvonne (Atkins) Brege, who played alto saxophone in the parades and has played in the city band since the summer of 1976.
“I know I was pretty difficult on the kids,” said Bergmann. “We wanted them to be physically fit enough to march in those parades. They took it in stride and worked very hard and that is something commendable for all of them, and I really mean that. That was a special group of kids.”
The first parade was on July 3 in Philadelphia.
Orban, a trumpet player, recalls how nervous she felt getting dressed on the day of the parade, “Anxiously waiting and waiting for the Michigan band announcement to line and prepare.”
Bands joined the procession according to the order which its state joined the union. Michigan, represented by two Girl Scouts carrying a flag, several state policemen, and the Rogers City marching band, was the 26th state in the parade. The parade was already four hours old, according to the article written by Jim Karshner.
“I remember listening and watching all the other bands march by and my nervousness increased with each passing band realizing that soon it would be our turn! How exciting and electrifying it felt when Mr. Bergmann blew his whistle and our drum cadence began,” said Orban.
In the nation’s capitol, parade goers were 30-deep. Vice president Nelson Rockefeller and country star Johnny Cash stood behind bullet-proof glass, waving to the band as it passed.
Delekta remembers having to keep her rifle still during this part; however, many band members do not recall seeing dignitaries or celebrities.
AUDIO FROM THE 1976 RCHS MARCHING BAND:
“We just knew we were being watched,” said Vaughn. “We could not look around us to see what was going on.” Vaughn still plays in the city band in Munising where she lives and will be in that city’s Fourth of July parade.
Staying in formation and playing the music correctly were more the priorities. There also were large television cameras to dodge. They would split the band and then they would have to get right back in formation.
“The skyscrapers and the buildings were impressive and hearing the sound bounce off of the buildings was neat,” said Vaughn.
“I remember that while we were marching, Mr. Bergmann and parents were checking in with us, as it was a hot day and squirting water in our mouths and asking if we were ‘ok.’ At the end, I remember feeling so proud! I was a part of something really amazing, I was with a fine group of musicians and I was truly blessed with a band conductor who demanded perfection and commitment, and at the same time, made it fun!” said Orban.
“It was a very special time and truly a highlight, and I mean that very honestly, of my teaching career,” said Bergmann.
After Rogers City, the band director was in many more places and took bands from other schools to England, China and Mexico. “Because Rogers City was the first, it was one of the major highlights of my career in teaching and I mean that very honestly. It was a special time in history and a special time for the kids.”
“What a moment in history!” said Orban. “And I was a part of it!”
It is a moment to reflect and cherish this Independence Day.