2017-09-29 / Front Page

Thread of tradition

SPHS band seeks new uniforms after 30 years
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Members, coaches and boosters of the award-winning South Portland High School marching band gather on their practice field Tuesday, Sept. 26, around their youngest member, eighth-grader Elizabeth Withers, 12, holding a version of the new uniforms the band hopes to purchase if $20,000 can be raised, and their oldest member, senior Jesse Pearlman, 17, who holds an example of the group's current jacket, purchased in 1986 and handed down amongst hundreds of band members over the past 31 years. (Duke Harrington photo) Members, coaches and boosters of the award-winning South Portland High School marching band gather on their practice field Tuesday, Sept. 26, around their youngest member, eighth-grader Elizabeth Withers, 12, holding a version of the new uniforms the band hopes to purchase if $20,000 can be raised, and their oldest member, senior Jesse Pearlman, 17, who holds an example of the group's current jacket, purchased in 1986 and handed down amongst hundreds of band members over the past 31 years. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Of all the traditions at South Portland High School, none may be more venerable than the marching band. Well, not the band itself, exactly, but their uniforms, which have been used, reused and handed down among thousands of students over the past 31 years.

Yes, the South Portland High School marching band is an award-winning ensemble – one of the most successful in the state – having captured a best-possible five-star gold-medal rating at final competitions 16 years running, but every time they take the field, they do so in uniforms purchased new in 1986.


The five-star, award-winning South Portland High School marching band, in formation during a competition earlier this season, wearing uniforms from 1986 that have been shared by thousands of students over the past 31 years. With the jackets having finally worn out, the 70-member band is hoping to purchase new uniforms if $20,000 can be raised. (Courtesy photo) The five-star, award-winning South Portland High School marching band, in formation during a competition earlier this season, wearing uniforms from 1986 that have been shared by thousands of students over the past 31 years. With the jackets having finally worn out, the 70-member band is hoping to purchase new uniforms if $20,000 can be raised. (Courtesy photo) According to Beth Doane, publicity chairman for South Portland Music Boosters, with between 50 and 90 students on the band roster every year, each uniform has been worn in competition by more than 2,000 different students.

“We’ve had to do some real ‘Frankensteining’ of them, taking two jackets and making one out of them as pieces wear out, or when we have to tailor one for a new kid who is either oversized, or much more petite than the ones who came before,” said Band Director Craig Skeffington, who has led the group for the past 24 years.

“We’ve definitely had to ‘MacGyver’ them,” said music booster Co- President Lisa Fitzgerald. “We’ve had to replace a lot of zippers. We spend a lot of time putting wax on zippers, because otherwise they won’t go up and down.”

“There was one recent event where the clasp on the collar of one boy’s uniform broke, like many of them have,” said music booster Co-President Sylvia Green. “There was no time to fix it. So, we literally had to sew him into his uniform just before he took the field, and then seam rip him back out when he was done.”

Perhaps the most chilling, maybe-even creepifying tale of what marchers endure comes from senior Andrew LeBlanc. As drum major, he’s essentially the team’s quarterback.

“After you’ve been marching around during a full-blown show, you’re exhausted,” he said. “A routine is just eight minutes, but all that marching while playing an instrument, it’s basically like doing a mile sprint, if not longer. So, as you watch kids come off the field, they’re just dripping with sweat.”

“We do dry clean the uniforms regularly,” Green is quick to add, but as she holds up one of the better band jackets, it’s clear that after more than three decades, the uniforms have reached the end of their useful lives. The neck clasp is loose, there are dark stains on the white portion of the jacket that won’t wash out, and worn areas where brass has rested on generations of young shoulders. The lining is torn in some places, and irrevocably stained in others, while the seam all along the bottom is frayed, with loose threads dangling and waiting to be snagged. From the grandstand, these deficiencies can’t be seen, but the students know what they are wearing.

And yet, they don’t seem to mind. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that so many of the uniform jackets are virtually disintegrating with each performance, the fact that so many former students have worn them seem almost part of the allure.

“There’s a feeling in suiting up for the shows that you can’t put into words easily,” LeBlanc said. “It’s this adrenaline rush like none other. You’re zipped up tight, buttoned up in one uniform with everyone around you, and you’re about to go out with 50 of your closest friends and push yourself to a point as far as you can, having put in by the end of the season upwards of 70 hours into an 8 minute show, wearing these uniforms.

“And there’s something about just putting it on, realizing that although you’re one of 50 kids right now, thousands of kids right now have worn these jackets, the same one you have on at that very moment, and felt that same experience,” LeBlanc added. “It’s really cool to think that people who wore these jackets in the ’90s have gone on to become so many things, like, doctors and stuff.”

“Could and have,” Skeffington said. “I can think of, like, five right now.”

In some ways, the South Portland High School marching band has been a victim of its own frugality, and that love of tradition.

“The problem is, we can’t just buy one or two uniforms to replace a few as they were out, because you can’t get these same kind of uniforms anymore. They just don’t make them at all,” Skeffington said. “And I admit, I’ve resisted updating them. I’m a traditionalist. I just love the look of these older jackets.”

But all things must pass, and Skeffington, along with the boosters, have decided it’s finally time to call it a career on the 1986 band jackets, and laydown funds to re-outfit the entire ensemble. At about $180 per jacket, not counting the cost of embroidery to affix the school logo – something Skeffington said he insists on getting done locally – the entire outlay is expected to run at least $20,000.

And it’s an all-or-nothing enterprise. As Skeffington noted, nobody makes the old-style uniforms anymore, or anything like it. To send out a few band members in new uniforms, they would stick out on the field like a sour note.

“That’s a thing about this,” LeBlanc said. “We’re a team. When you line up any 10 of us, apart from size and height, you can’t tell us apart. We are all part of the same cohesive whole.”

Fitzgerald and Green said the boosters have not yet asked the school department for funding. They know the score. While the district pays for some uniforms, for the most part it only contributes about half of the uniform costs for each athletic team, with boosters covering the rest. And even $10,000 is no small amount of money.

So, the boosters have launched a fundraising campaign, starting with a pancake breakfast at the high school Saturday, Sept. 30. The goal is to raise enough from various events over the next 11 months, along with whatever the school board might elect to kick in as part of next year’s budget, to have new uniforms ready to answer the drum major’s opening whistle.

After that, new uniforms will become a regular maintenance item in the band budget.

“I hate to say this, but the uniforms they make today, the quality is just not the same. They are a lighter material, which will make it much better for the kids, but there’s no way they’ll last another 30 years,” Skeffington said. “Almost all of the bands we compete against, they’ve all gotten new uniforms within the last five years, some of them twice-over in that time.”

Although the boosters will have to raise at least part of the new uniform costs, school board Chairman Dick Matthews and Superintendent Ken Kunin said the district has supported the band financially in the past, and they expect no less with the latest need.

“We are strong supporters of all things music in South Portland,” Kunin said. “We have four full-time instrumental music teachers as part of our professional staff and a number of stipends for our various performing groups, including the marching band. We look forward to supporting the marching band as they start the process to acquire new uniforms, a once per generation endeavor apparently. The school department helps athletic teams with support for uniforms, with booster groups typically working to fundraise for part of the cost. We anticipate it will be no different for the marching band.”

“The marching band and the music band, they have some pretty expensive equipment that we do help them out with,” Matthews said. “As far as the uniforms, that is something I do want to have a conversation with Ken about, to see what we can do.

“Do I favor helping them out? Absolutely. But that’s not my call by myself,” Matthews continued. “But I support the marching band 100 percent. I have personally raised thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars for Little League, the school department, and for the PTAs. At Brown School I led the charge for four new smart boards. So, I’m no stranger to fundraising, and whatever gets done in the budget, I will be there to help with the rest in any way I can.”

Meanwhile, some unexpected revenue streams have already presented themselves.

“We’ve already had some past alumni of the band contact us and ask if they can actually buy one of the old jackets,” Fitzgerald said.

“We may have to consider that. Maybe an auction of some kind,” Skeffington said.

For his part, LeBlanc is not at all surprised that former

To build a better (looking) band

The South Portland High School marching band will hold a pancake breakfast 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, at the high school. Tickets are $6.50 per person, or $20 per family, at the door. band members, band parents and music boosters, as well as average South Portland residents would rally around the marching band. After all, the band is a large part of what comes to mind for locals when they think Red Riot pride.

“With the rigor of our music program, it has a lot to offer,” he said. “And once you’re in it, it’s a community you can’t leave. The people, the family atmosphere, it’s something you never really walk away from.

“Nothing against the football team, or any other team or club, but if you Google South Portland High School, one of the first three things to come up will be either the music boosters site, or a marching band video. Guaranteed,” LeBlanc said.

Meanwhile, the band’s assistant drum major, senior Josh Hyssong, said he hopes that apparent interest in the South Portland High School marching band will materialize in dollars for the band, even though the new uniforms won’t arrive until after LeBlanc and others have moved on to the next phase of their academic and musical careers.

“Our marching band has done really well for a number of years, so we’d hope people would support us for that success,” he said. “But it’s more than just that. This is a group that is super inclusive, that everyone really enjoys being a part of. While it is neat wearing uniforms that have been around for so long, that so many people have marched in, that there’s a real history there, it is time.

“For us, the band, the music program here, it’s our sport,” Hyssong said. “It’s something that we take a lot of pride and joy in, and it’s very enriching to a lot of lives. So, I hope it’s something the wider community will see the value in putting some funding toward.”

Staff writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

FMI

The music boosters also have set up a crowdfunding page. To find the campaign, search for “South Portland High School marching band uniform fund,” on www.youcaring.com As of Wednesday morning, the band had raised $495 toward its $20,000 goal.

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