Beyond basketball: Ending on a high note: U-M Alumni Pep Band director retires after 21 years
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Danilel Brenner | AnnArbor.com
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An hour before the University of Michigan’s last regular-season game Sunday John Wilkins arrived, just as he has each time he has directed the Alumni Pep Band for the past 21 years.
Sunday was different, though. It would be his last time. Wilkins, who wants to spend more time with his family and focus on playing his own instrument, had decided to retire.
The alumni band performs whenever the student pep band is not available, such as during spring break, which was the case Sunday for U-M's game against Indiana. And, as you would expect, the band doesn’t miss a beat.
Founded originally by Wilkins and a few Alumni Band members to support the hockey team during the Great Lakes Invitational tournament at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, the band expanded to substituting at men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball games. That comes out to between 10 and 15 gigs a year.
Wilkins has never missed a scheduled rehearsal or game in all those years, even though it has meant sacrificing family time and vacations, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Watching him at the games, it’s obvious that he is doing something he loves. “I direct enthusiastically, with a lot of passion,” he said.
“I get very involved in the games. It’s important that we be there to contribute to the home court advantage and to enhance the incredible spirit that’s present. We prepare well to perform at our best. The band always amazes me at how well they play."
Wilkins grew up in Ann Arbor attending basketball, football, and hockey games. “Michigan athletics is in my soul,” he says. Performing is, too. He says that being a showman has come naturally to him ever since he began playing trumpet in fifth grade at Wines Elementary. “I try to play for the audience, to connect with them, he said. “ Playing in a nightclub in Ypsilanti for 30 years helped.”
Wilkins’ showmanship was on full display Sunday, and the fans loved it. During a time out near the end of the game, the video board focused on Wilkins and the band as they played, and the announcer paid tribute to Wilkins for his years of service. The arena was rocking, and Wilkins received a long and loud standing ovation.
The band has 115 members. About 30 of them play at almost every game, and they are joined by 15 to 35 more who make it when they are able. Most live in southeast Michigan, but some come from as far as Holland, Grand Rapids, Dayton, and Cleveland. The requirement for membership is to have played in a UM band ensemble at least one semester. Every decade is represented back to the 1950s.
Besides retiring from the pep band, Wilkins retired from teaching music and being the band director at Mumford High School in Detroit last July. “That was a great fit for me,” he said. “I loved the kids and would say that I was born to teach even more than to be a musician. I was proud that my students seemed to enjoy coming to my class, learning and performing music, and feeling like we were one big family.
“Several times I brought the Mumford pep band to play at Michigan hockey and men’s basketball games. It wasn’t uncommon that they would receive a standing ovation.”
A difficult decision
Deciding to retire from the pep band was not easy for Wilkins. “I will miss the Alumni Pep Band very much,” he said. “The opportunity given to me to conduct a Michigan band at Michigan games, to play this great Michigan music, was a dream that I had since a little boy, a dream come true. Over the years I have developed incredible friendships with the players and will miss working with them on a regular basis. I'm glad that I have been invited to come back every year to conduct the entire Alumni Band at the football game in October on homecoming weekend.”
At the same time, he has recognized the need to slow down. “For instance, I have a daughter and son-in-law stationed at West Point, and they have a 2-year-old daughter who I rarely see,” he said. “Last year at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years’, my wife, Karen, drove out to New York three times to visit while I stayed behind because the pep band had gigs. It broke my heart to not go, especially when my granddaughter never asked or talked about Grandpa.”
He is also looking forward to having more time to play the music he likes on his horn, to give private lessons, to sing, to exercise and to walk three miles every morning.
Pete Dalton, a tuba player and the band manager said Wilkins has brought lots of positive energy to the band. “He is a showman; he is the most pure energy and enthusiasm you will ever find, said. “At the same time, he is quiet and genuine, a good man with a capital G.”
Dave Finn, who plays alto saxophone and has been close to Wilkins for years, calls him a treasured friend. “John has become like the brother I never had,” he said. “There isn't a phony bone in his body. He is the type of person who draws people into his life. The question now for our band is 'how do you replace someone like John Wilkins?'”
Watch a video of Wilkins below:
Bob Horning is a lifelong Ann Arbor resident who writes U-M sports human interest stories for AnnArbor.com. If you have ideas for future columns, please email email@example.com.