Harry Clarke looks back on his years leading the Wildcat Marching Band

Note: The UK Alumni Band held its annual reunion this past weekend, with a reception Friday night and a tailgate and halftime performance on Saturday. It was also the 50th anniversary of Harry Clarke taking over as director of the Wildcat Marching Band. He recently spoke with us about taking over the band in 1968.

By Hal Morris

Leading the UK Marching Band was supposed to be a one-year commitment for Harry Clarke.

That was his plan anyway. But he was “sidetracked” along the way, as he calls it. The rest, they say, is history.

Now 50 years later, Clarke celebrated the anniversary of his taking over the Wildcat Marching Band Nov. 2-3 at the annual Alumni Band Reunion. Retired from UK since 2011, Clarke still leads the Alumni Band in playing “My Old Kentucky Home” at the football game during reunion weekend.

Clarke came to UK in 1965, working on his doctorate in music education and serving as a band teaching assistant. He then moved into an administrative role for three years.

“In the summer of 1968 the marching band was in terrible shape and the public was really upset about it,” says Clarke, who noted there were letters to the editor in the Lexington paper as well as other articles. While on vacation, he was asked to take over the band for a year.

“Of course, I said yes, and when I got back, there were only 30 people signed up for the fall of 1968,” he says. “We had a lot of work to do. I started recruiting, and one thing we did was unusual. At that point, the band had been all male. That was a tradition in the Big Ten and at UK forever.

“I made a decision that we were going to add girls to the band. So we added majorettes and flag bearers, all of them girls. We ended up with about 120 people in the band. The band was suspicious of me because they did not know me from Adam. But we worked hard and put a pretty good band out on the field.”

Clarke also made a not-so-popular change, but one he felt was needed.

“The band had always played ‘Dixie’ during games, but I decided it was wrong for universities to do that. And for better or worse, I went to the UK president and talked to him. We were trying to recruit African Americans to campus and I felt ‘Dixie’ was not appropriate,” Clarke says. “The president said he couldn’t make that decision for me. It was academic freedom to do what you want to do. So I went to the band and told them this is how I feel. It was unanimous not to play the song anymore.

“For a bunch of 18 and 19-year-old kids, that was a pretty big decision. I did get a lot of conflict for that decision — a lot of yelling from the stands and an article in the Kentucky Kernel. But we did it, and it was the right thing to do.”

Fritz Skeen ’72 ’73 BE was a freshman in the band in fall 1968. He admits no one was sure how things would turn out.

“We weren’t recruited by Harry Clarke and had less than a month before we learned that he would be the band director, as I recall.  So we did not know what to expect,” says Skeen, president of the UK Alumni Association. “But we found a person dedicated to the job and making a difference in the Marching Band. Harry produced great results. We worked hard and had a good time and made a big difference in the Wildcat Marching Band and its perception on campus and around the SEC.”

With his fingerprint firmly on the program, Clarke oversaw the band as it continue to grow. In a display of how quickly it had improved, in January 1969, the band played in the inaugural parade of President Richard Nixon.

“We just kept getting larger and larger. I did a lot of recruiting around the state,” Clarke says. “We needed numbers first, and then we’d work with the kids and train them the best we could.”

The band quickly grew to more than 200 members and ultimately up to 300 members by the mid-1970s.

He was largely doing it on his own, with no secretary or assistant band director for several years.

Finally, spurred on by new leadership in the Department of Music, Clarke hired Gordon Henderson ’75 ’77 FA as UK’s first assistant band director.

“It was the next big step when we hired Gordon,” Clarke said of Henderson, currently director of bands in the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. “He was a great musician and tremendous drill writer. It made the band take the next step.”

Steve Moore ’84 ’01 FA was the next assistant director, luring him back to Lexington after earning a master’s degree from the University of South Carolina. Moore is currently associate dean of undergraduate studies in the University of Miami Frost School of Music.

“His dad was director at Lafayette High School. So when he graduated, I had to get Steve from South Carolina,” Clarke said. “It was a good on-the-job learning situation for both of those guys.”

Dale Warren ’88 FA was Clarke’s third assistant band director and is now professor of music education in the University of Arkansas Department of Music. “He had been band director at North Hardin High School and had a great reputation,” Clarke says. “And then Arkansas came calling and hired him away.”

Clarke says he never would have had the success he has had without those three tremendous assistant directors, two of whom were on hand for the reunion.

“That’s fine if they wanted to honor me, but I also wanted them to honor my three assistant directors. They played an awfully large part in the success we’ve had,” Clarke says.

In 1989, Clarke stepped down as director of bands after he was appointed director of the UK School of Music, a position he held until 2003. Until his retirement in 2011, he continued to teach instrumental music education and serve as director of student teaching in music, work that he had done during most of his 43 years at UK.

So one year turned into 21 and finally 43. It never really occurred to him to want to leave.

“I’m not sure I could find a better place to live than Lexington,” he says. “I love the city and married a native Lexingtonian (Mary Beth). I never had any real reason to want to leave.”

Clarke also dabbled in politics, serving one term as a member of Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council (2012-2014).

“I retired without any plans. I never said I’d retire and be world traveler. I’m going to be very flexible. An opportunity came to run for city council, and I said why not. I spent a term on the city council and made a whole lot of new friends,” he says. “I’m currently on seven different boards and commissions, still serving the city and organizations. I stay involved that way.”

Clarke never had a chance to think about the impact he would make with the band. After all, he notes, he only planned to stay here for a year.

“I knew nobody was going to work harder than I did. The job was in front of me, and basically I thought about having a fine band at UK. If it were just one year, then it was just one year,” he says. “So I just said, this is the job, and I’ve got to make this work. It seemed to work out alright.”

Please enjoy the following photos taken over the weekend. Click here to download photos from Saturday’s halftime performance.



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