Putting a rose in his cap: Bob Buckner’s final season as WCU marching band director ends with trip to Parade of Roses

By Brittney Burns • SMN Intern

While preparing Western Carolina University’s Pride of the Mountains marching band for their debut appearance in the 2011 Tournament of Roses Parade, band director Bob Buckner and wife — band auxiliary coordinator Donna — announced their retirement.   

Buckner, a Waynesville resident, is serving his 20th year as WCU’s marching band director. Although Buckner and his wife, who joined the band family the year after her husband, will officially step down in June, they both plan to stay involved with the band.

“We want to retire while we are still in good health and able to still do the things we want to,” said Buckner. “I still plan to come back and help the new director in any way I can. I just don’t want to have to work every day.”

Alyssa Pierce, a WCU junior and marimba player for the Front Ensemble, is saddened by Buckner’s announcement.

“We are all sad to see Bob leave, but we know he will always be a part of this band,” said Pierce. “I am confident that he will remain an inspiration to us and to whoever comes to lead the next era of the Pride of the Mountains.”

The Buckners have plenty to keep them busy once they retire. One of the things they look forward to the most is being able to spend more time with their grandchildren.

“We have three grandchildren who live right here in Sylva,” said Buckner. “Most people retire to travel the world, but we have been lucky enough to have already traveled all over the world. I just want to hang around WCU with my family.”

Buckner and his wife also plan to spend retirement relaxing and working on their golf games, a hobby they both enjoy.

Both Buckner and his wife have built an empire around the Pride of the Mountains. During Donna Buckner’s time with the band she has not only acted as the auxiliary coordinator while still being able to be a substitute teacher, she founded the color guard as well as the dance team. Donna Buckner started the Catamount color guard during her first year working with the band. It began with 12 girls and has grown to a squad of 36 women who play an integral part in the Pride of the Mountains performances. She has coached girls on the dance team who have gone on to perform for NFL professional teams such as the Redskins, Falcons and Panthers.

Buckner’s reign as director is full of milestones. One of his most notable accomplishments is that there are currently more than 100 active band directors in North Carolina who are WCU graduates.

“I think the number of active band directors who are former Catamounts speaks volumes not only about the marching band, but about Western’s music program in general,” Buckner said.  

One of Buckner’s proudest accomplishments while working at WCU came in 2009.

“Receiving the Sudler trophy was a really big deal for our band; it’s the highest honor possible,” said Buckner. “It says a lot considering the size of school we are and highlights how good we really are.”

The most recent accomplishment the band has experienced is one they are still preparing for. On Dec. 30 of this year, the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band will join the country’s most talented bands in the 2011 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

Although excited to participate in this prestigious event, Bucker was not surprised.

“I was sitting at home writing the last show of September (of last year) when I first got the call; I was extremely excited, but I was kind of expecting it,” said Buckner. “We had just won the Sudler trophy and are an extremely talented band.”

Band member Stephen Eller was overwhelmed with the news about the Tournament of Roses Parade.

“When we were first told about the Rose Parade, I thought Bob was joking. Marching that day will be one of the highest honors this band has had thus far, and I am proud and excited to be a part of it,” said Eller.

After getting over the initial excitement, Buckner quickly began preparing the band for the performance. The first thing the band did was revise the 2010 pregame show to include the tune they will perform for the “TV Corner” portion of the parade. This allows them to incorporate practice for the performance without interfering with the plans that were already in play for football season.

The theme for this year’s parade is “Building dreams, friendships, and memories.” Instead of doing the predictable and choosing music to highlight the theme, Buckner wanted to approach it with a “hands on” idea.   Assistant Director Matt Henley contacted a southern California, all horn band that mixes Brazilian, rock, country and Cuban flavors to develop their own unique sound, and made arrangements for WCU’s band to perform the band’s tunes at the second part of the Tournament of Roses BandFest.

“When they hear a 390-member strong band play their music — we are going to blow them away.” The two bands will perform together at BandFest, really embracing the theme of this year’s Rose Parade.

With the big day approaching quickly, the band is attentively working to straighten out all the last-minute details of the trip. The band’s staff coordinator, Rachel Rimmer, has worked with travel agents to single-handedly scheduled flights for each band member (totaling 396 people).

“Working out the logistics has been difficult,” said Buckner, “Rachel has been great handling all the travel. Believe it or not, we had some students who didn’t even have a photo ID.”

While the band staff sorts out the final details of the trip, Buckner has been encouraging students to work out and get in shape for the 6.5-mile hike of the parade.

“After all 396 people who will be marching that day actually line up, we measure just over 300-feet long,” Buckner said. “What people don’t realize is that the parade march expands over six miles and will be no easy feat.”

Band members have been regularly visiting the campus gym and joining fitness classes to prepare for the hike. Senior band member Shelby Harrell is taking preparing for the parade seriously.

“I’ve been hitting the gym a lot to prepare for 6-mile parade march. It’s so exciting to think about all of the people that will be there to watch our band,” said Harrell. “I have no doubt that we will be fully prepared for the parade and I know we are going to have the time of our lives.”

Buckner credits the band’s success to being a “real team effort” between himself and both of his assistant directors, Henley and Jon Henson.

“The most fun part of this entire experience is the real unique situation we have here — we are all from the band program at Tuscola High School,” said Buckner. “Three generations of mountaineers working together.”

According to Buckner, the best way to watch the Pride of the Mountain’s Rose Parade performance is the commercial-free, live streaming of the event on HGTV beginning with the BandFest performances on Dec. 30.

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