“Someone told me he was a crossing guard.”
“I heard he’s a professor, or used to be. I don’t think he knows anyone in the band.”
“I thought he was a former band member.”
For the past decade, members of the Michigan Marching Band have speculated about the identity of the most faithful onlooker at their fall weekday practices at Elbel Field. He stands in the same spot every day, always wearing his signature orange reflective vest. Bad weather does not deter him, even when rain and cold scare away all the other spectators. At one practice last year, trumpet player Shayne Rodgers wondered, “Why is he out here in the rain, when I don’t even want to be?”
The band’s modest, unofficial mascot is retired astronomy prof Chuck Cowley. On a warm September day, his safety vest is layered over a blue button-up shirt, paired with black shorts and a U-M cap, a present from his son, Jim. As always, he’s standing near the upper left-hand corner of the last set of bleachers, facing the brass section. “It’s as good a view as I could get,” he explains. Nearby, a young girl in a pink polka dot sun hat sits with her mother, holding a doll and nodding to the beat. Another mom pushes a double stroller with two children licking ice cream cones.
Next to the bleachers, from the two-story director’s stand, Scott Boerma leads the rehearsal. At the moment he’s on the stand’s lower level, wearing his microphone headset and issuing commands through the speakers below him. Boerma does more than just keep time through his hand movements–he explains the emotion of the music. “There’s no edge to the sound, no anger,” he explains after stopping the band in the middle of a piece. “It’s just gloriously expressive.”
“He’s just so good!” Cowley says admiringly.
Contrary to the students’ speculation, Cowley, seventy-eight, was never in a marching band himself. He sang in the U-M Choral Union and, before that, in the Men’s Glee Club at the University of Virginia, where he earned his B.A. As a kid, he tried the piano but found he had a “much better ear than ability to read music. I would always listen, and once I heard it, I could play it.”
It amazes Cowley how the band moves, synchronized to form complex shapes and spell out words with precision: “They all have these little booklets that supposedly tell them where to go, and they all get to the right places with remarkably little effort.” The marching formations are designed with computer programs, and then the kinks are worked out in rehearsal.
“I suppose it seems a little strange,” Cowley admits of his faithful attendance, “but it’s not a big deal.” It started eleven years ago, he explains, when a student of his, Karen England, became the first band’s female drum major. He has continued to come because he likes music and “it’s right on my way home from work, so why not?”
Though he retired from teaching in 2008, Cowley continues his research in the astronomy department. He wears the safety vest because he bikes between his home near Pioneer High and his office in the Dennison Building. Asked what he’s researching, his succinct reply is that he’s trying to “figure out what the stars are made of.”
He’d rather talk about the band. “You can see a difference from Monday to Friday,” he says. “On Monday, they’re still reading the sheet music, and by Friday they have it memorized.” He especially enjoys those times the band members break up the monotony of rehearsals by “stunting,” as he calls it. One day, the trumpets will all wear long socks, another day the tubas will all show up in chef’s hats. Today, he laughs at the tubas dancing as they play, a few players almost kneeling on the ground, leaning back in a dramatic pose.
Cowley rarely goes to football games: to him, the rehearsals sound better, because for the first part of each session, the band stays in place and focuses on the music. “It’s hard to march and play,” he says. “They don’t play as well when they’re marching. Nobody could.”
Cowley seldom interacts with the band. But he was pleased when, three years ago, a band member handed him a card that read, “Thank you for being at all our practices, no matter how cold it is.” The unsigned card hangs on his office door. And trumpet player Clara Jones recalls the musicians’ amazement last year when, on the Monday before the Ohio State game, Cowley joined Boerma on the director’s stand.
“Everyone was like, ‘that’s that guy!'” says piccolo player Rachel Forche. With a smile on his face, Cowley introduced himself and explained simply that he loves watching the band rehearse. In return, Boerma told him that it was great to have his support–and then led the band in playing “The Victors” in Cowley’s honor.