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Posted on Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 6:43 a.m.

Ending on a high note: U-M Alumni Pep Band director retires after 21 years

By bob horning


John Wilkins at Sunday's University of Michigan basketball game against Indiana University. Wilkins retired as the director of the Alumni Pep Band after 21 years.

Danilel Brenner |

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."

Home-grown dedication

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 If you have ideas for future columns, please email



Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 3 p.m.

My children and I met John years ago at the old Carty's Music in Ypsilanti and struck up a conversation when we recognized him. He told us he was reluctantly accepting the fact that his doctor said he shouldn't high kick anymore while conducting. We should have suspected something was going on during Sunday's game when he resurrected that high kick during his signature song. Thanks for the memories, John!


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 1:35 a.m.

The song is "Woodchoppers Ball". It was always one of my favorites as well. I am his daughter and have loved watching my dad lead the alumni band since I was 10. So proud of him and we are all looking forward to whatever the future holds. Thank you everyone for your kind words!!


Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 11:41 p.m.

Does anyone know the name of the song being played in that embedded YouTube video? The alumni bands performances of that song were always a favorite of mine, and the crowd went nuts during it Sunday.


Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 7:01 p.m.

What a CLASS guy!! It was a real joy when the Alumni Band played at the games. No one could do it better when he was directing and dancing to the band's arrangement of "The Woodchoppers Ball" He was always featured on the "Big Screen" when that piece was played. Have a great retirement.


Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 6:41 p.m.

I am John's youngest sister and a very proud sister at that. I am glad he has been able to fufill his passion all of these years and make alot of the sporting events at U of M more exciting. I have 5 brothers and sisters and live 1200 miles from 4 of them and not being able to see them on holidays is the worst! I am happy that John will now be able to enjoy watching his grandaughter grow up and she will look at all the videos of him and see what an inspiration he was to so many! Love you John!


Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 6:40 p.m.

John Wilkins will be missed. I have his signature jazz song in my head right now where he conducts so hard, jumping around, that sweat pours from his face and the fans are screaming. Now that's what Michigan basketball is all apart. Good Luck John in your retirement!


Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 6:36 p.m.

Thanks for all the great years John. I knew of you, but never knew who exactly you were before this article, but I've been to plenty of women's and men's Michigan basketball games with my wife, many during school breaks. And I always remembered when you guys would do your best number of the night. I don't know the name of the song, but you would build and build this momentum as the band would start to play louder and faster getting the crowd to join in by clapping there hands to the beat, and we could all see your passion bursting out of you as you jumped in the air motivating the band to play louder and louder and get more and more fans involved. At the end of it you would turn to the crowd and thank them, and they always gave you a huge ovation, sometimes even louder than when Michigan would score during the game. And we really had to, because it was always like a double time-out when one team would call for a time-out and they'd also go to media time-out, so the band had like 3 minutes or more to play something good and wake people up. I always felt like I was at a concert for those 3 minutes when you'd play that uptempo piece, and it was always one of my favorite parts of going to a Michigan game while the students were on break. Thanks again John, you will not be forgotten among wolverines.


Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 5:47 p.m.

This will be one of those rare articles which isn't overrun by hateful comments. John Wilkins is a true gem - he has the deep thanks and admiration of everyone who has ever played with him, played for him, or enjoyed the energetic performances he was famous for.


Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 3:46 p.m.

It never dawned on me all the times my family was home for the holidays and we saw him leading the band, that he might be sacrificing time with his own family. Good on you, Mr. Wilkins; your efforts were deeply appreciated and you will be missed.

Jeffrey Willets

Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 3:37 p.m.

I knew John, as an undergraduate at Eastern Michigan University. He and I had the same great music theory instructor, Sylvan Kalib. I remember his dedication, even back then! Congratulations to you John! "Thanks for the music!"


Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 1:48 p.m.

As good as the U-M pep bands are and they are reallly good, I think the alumni band is even better. Their selection of songs reflected a somewhat older tradition than the student band, so as an alumni it always brought back fond memories. Thank you for all the wonderful performances. I hope there is someone that can continue the excellence you brought to Michigan.

Heidi Koester

Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 12:55 p.m.

A big thank you to John Wilkins for his years of wonderful service to the U-M community. It's a rare treat to watch someone who just obviously loves what he is doing and can bring out the best in others. Best wishes to him and his family!


Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 12:38 p.m.

While Mr. Wilkins will be sorely missed as the leader of the Alumni Band, I am already missing his appearances at the hockey games leading the Mumford band. While they weren't as frequent, it was always a treat to listen to the Mumford musicians and to watch the incredible interplay he had with them.


Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 12:37 p.m.

he truly is THE MAESTRO. for so long he rescued crisler when the student band members were on hiatus. john's energy level was amazing. wish that we had been able to score one more bucket for him yesterday.


Mon, Mar 11, 2013 : 11:55 a.m.

Aw, he will really be missed, but I understand his reasons! His enthusiasm is unlike anything I've seen in the Michigan bands and he brought so much joy, pride and excitement to the games. He'll be hard to replace as director of the alumni pep band. I'm glad he will still be leading us each year at Alumni Band for homecoming, though!