Bob Buckner suspects announcing his retirement to the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band was not as hard as watching the band will be this Saturday, Nov. 13, as it takes the field for the final home football game of the season – the last home football game for which Buckner will direct their performance.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a lot more difficult at the last game and last performance when I realize I won’t be doing this anymore,” said Buckner, who plans to retire effective July 1.
Under his leadership, the WCU band has grown in nearly two decades from fewer than 90 members to more than 400 and been recognized as recipient of the Sudler Trophy, which is considered the “Heisman Trophy” of bands. The group has earned such honors as performing at the Bands of America Grand Nationals in both 1998 and 2003 and earning one of the two invitations issued to U.S. collegiate bands to participate in the upcoming Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 1.
“This program is important to the university, and, emotionally, the band is a source of pride for our entire area,” said Buckner, who joined the WCU faculty in 1991. “That’s what I hope will be sustained.”
Buckner said when he came to WCU his goals for the band included building on the family atmosphere that he had come to love as a member of the Western Carolina band in the 1960s.
Mission accomplished, according to Billie Jeanne Curns, a senior music education major from Hayesville who is one of the band’s staff coordinators. “A lot of us find that he knows people in band by first name, which is huge because there are 400 of us, and, to us, he is ‘Bob,’” said Curns. “No matter how hard a practice is, we know he’s there for us and supports us no matter what. He has an open door policy, and students come in just to talk to him. For me, he has been a huge mentor.”
Another of Buckner’s goals, which he selected after reflecting on his time in college in bands from jazz to rock ’n’ roll, was to develop the marching band into a sophisticated rock ’n’ roll group.
“My idea was to develop a band that everyone is going to relate to in some way – a band with a lot of movement, a lot of choreography and a lot of really good arrangements of music people will recognize,” said Buckner. Under his leadership, the Pride of the Mountains earned a reputation as “the world’s largest funk-rock band” and incorporated nontraditional marching band elements, such as electric guitars and singers. The title of this year’s show is “Rock U.”
Buckner traces his career in music to the realization that he made a big mistake not joining the band at the first available opportunity in seventh grade.
“They needed someone big enough to carry the bass drum in the Canton Labor Day Parade, and my friends drafted me,” said Buckner. “It worked out really well. By the time I was in 10th grade, I had come to a summer music camp at Western Carolina and was just captivated. I loved the sounds I was hearing when I walked in the bandroom. I loved the atmosphere and the people. I told our band director at Waynesville Township High School that I thought I wanted to be a band director.”
Buckner graduated from WCU in 1967, and his career included work as director of the Sylva-Webster High School Marching Band, founding the band design and consulting firm United Music Enterprises, and simultaneously directing bands at East Tennessee State University and WCU before working at WCU full time.
His achievements include earning the 2007 Music Education Advocate Award from the North Carolina Music Educators Association. In 2004, he was named a Lowell Mason Fellow by MENC: The National Association for Music Education and installed into Bands of America Hall of Fame, which honors people who have greatly influenced Bands of America, the nation’s band activity and music education.
“Bob’s fingerprints are all over Bands of America,” said Scott McCormick from Bands of America in recognizing Buckner for the achievement. “His contributions to the organization span four different decades.”
When Buckner was director of Sylva-Webster High School’s Marching Band, it was named the 1979 Bands of America National Champion. He has served as a member of the BOA advisory board for multiple terms and on advisory and adjudication committees. He has worked as an adjudicator, drill designer, guest conductor and clinician across the country and in Canada and Europe, helped develop BOA national events and competition formats, and served as symposium faculty.
In 2007, he was invited by MENC: The National Association for Music Education to help launch the first-ever high-school All-American Marching Band and served as show coordinator and director of the ensemble, which performed at the nationally televised U.S Army All-American Bowl Game. He was invited to return as director the following year.
When Buckner shared with the WCU band that this would be the last season for him as director of athletic bands at WCU and his wife, Donna Buckner, as the band’s auxiliary coordinator, he said that their reasons included a desire to spend more time with family (especially grandchildren) and a sense that the band has the strongest infrastructure now that it has ever had.
One particular point of pride for Buckner is the band’s emphasis on creating student leadership roles in coordinating and supporting the organization.
“They take so much responsibility that I honestly believe if the directors were not here, the band would function fine,” said Buckner. “The program has gone well beyond leadership. It’s well into ownership.”
Buckner also credits support and vision from university leaders such as Robert Kehrberg, dean of the College of Fine and Performing Arts, and Chancellor John W. Bardo as important for helping the band flourish. With nearly 15 percent of the university’s freshman class in the marching band, the group has become an important tool for recruiting students. In addition, the band has a fan base at football games.
“My hope is that the new chancellor will realize the value of this program and what we’ve invested in it,” said Buckner.
Matt Henley, assistant director of athletic bands at WCU, said the band members are committed to carrying on Buckner’s legacy.
“Tremendous sadness covers me when I think of looking over at Bob’s desk and him not being there,” said Henley, who described Buckner as a boss, mentor and friend. “But, I also find myself getting excited about the future. Bob is like that. He never looks back. This optimism and excitement about what can and will be known as the future Pride of the Mountains band comes from working with a living legend for so long. It’s real – it’s here – and I can’t wait to see Bob’s legacy prosper and grow. That will be the truest of testaments to the groundwork laid by Bob Buckner.”
Details for Game Day
The WCU home game against Georgia Southern begins at 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13. The band warms up on the lawn of A.K. Hinds University Center about 1 p.m. and marches in to E.J. Whitmire Stadium shortly after 2 p.m. The route follows the road between H.F. Robinson Administration Building and the Fine and Performing Arts Center, and then turns left continuing to the stadium. The pregame show, which will honor band alumni, begins about 2:45 p.m. The Pride of the Mountains will perform at halftime and after the game. Also during Saturday’s game, newest members of the WCU Athletics Hall of Fame will be honored.
For more information about the band, visit prideofthemountains.com. For tickets to the game, visit catamountsports.com online or visit the ticket office on the lower level of Ramsey Regional Activity Center between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, or call 800-34-GOWCU or 828-227-2401.