Drum major Edwin Anderson ’44 Edu had practiced a flip for the 1942 season but never performed it during a game; he left school that semester due to appendicitis. Before Jeff Robertson ’75 H&HD took over as the drum major in 1971, those who took the mantle of the Blue Band’s celebrated position had tossed the mace (baton) and done a high-step strut during pregame performances. During Robertson’s first game, he was doing the strut when he tried to stop. His feet went out from under him, and he fell. During the second game, he dropped the mace. “I was not making a real good impression on the crowd,” he says.
So Robertson, who had learned tumbling and gymnastics as a boy, decided before the third game of the season that he was going to do a round-off back somersault instead. “The one thing I knew that I could do was a flip; run down the field, do a round-off back somersault, land on my feet,” he says. Robertson didn’t tell anyone of his new plan except a few friends in the band. He didn’t “nail the landing,” he recalls, “but I didn’t fall either.” The crowd was initially silent, then erupted. Band director James Dunlop then asked Robertson if he planned to continue doing the flip, and when he said yes, replied, “Don’t screw it up.” Eventually, Robertson added the split and salute into the routine, which also became a Blue Band tradition.
The next drum major, Eric Felack ’77 Lib, went back to the mace toss for two seasons. In 1977, Ron Louder ’80 Edu, ’86 MA A&A clinched his audition for drum major by doing the round-off back flip, but he couldn’t get the move down pat. Louder had spent the year taking gymnastics lessons and a physical education course in preparation for the audition. “I got it to the point where I could do it in a gym with somebody spotting me, but when it was time to go out on the field and do it, I just couldn’t go over backwards,” he says.
Rainy weather kept the band off the field for much of that season, giving Louder a reprieve and a full winter to practice. During the first home game of 1978, Louder drew cheers by performing the first forward flip, which has been an audition requirement for the position ever since. “Why the front flip?” Louder says. “Because I couldn’t do a back flip.”
From that point on, the drum major had an increased celebrity status. It would soon also have more responsibilities. “It wasn’t right to have this leader of the band sitting on the sidelines for most of the week and then going out and doing the flip,” said O. Richard Bundy Jr. ’70, ’87 PhD A&A, who directed the Blue Band from 1996 to 2015.
Drum majors began to teach marching fundamentals during rehearsals, and on game days would assume one of the six conducting positions during the halftime shows. During the game, they directed the small groups of band members that would go through the stands, often with the assistance of a director or assistant director. They didn’t spend that much time during the week practicing the flip itself, Bundy says, to save wear and tear on their knees and ankles.
As time went by, a drum major’s flipping skills and aptitude for these additional duties became baked-in parts of the audition process. “If there were two students who had comparable flipping skills, but one seemed to have more potential as a student leader, we would probably go with that person,” Bundy says.
Robertson and Louder have both watched their successors with interest over the years. Louder, who met his wife on a Blue Band alumni bus trip 14 years after graduating, had lunch this summer with current drum major and fellow Hershey resident Carson Pedaci. “The kids now land better than I did back in the day,” Louder says. “But our running backs today are faster, too.”