MADISON (WKOW) — The Badgers football team plays its final home game of the season on Saturday. It will be especially bittersweet for one, diehard fan.
Mike Leckrone will take the field at Camp Randall Stadium with his students for the very last time as director of the UW Marching Band. He announced his retirement at the start of the season.
Leckrone, 82, says he wanted to make it to 50 years leading the band and leave on a high note. But it was still a tough decision.
“To come to the decision, knowing what it meant for me to give up things that I really enjoy doing, that was hard,” he told 27 News.
Now, as he prepares for the final performances, he’s also getting ready for some of the most emotional moments of his career.
“It’s a very mixed emotional feeling,” Leckrone said. “There’s kind of a sense of relief, too, that I can see the end of the road but I’m dreading it, to tell you the truth.”
Looking back on 50 years
The UW icon still remembers the beginning: when he met his first UW Band in 1969.
“I thought I knew exactly what I was going to do and found out really fast that it wasn’t gonna happen,” he said. “I had to be very careful about not overstepping at the very beginning and we made gradual changes, but the band hasn’t changed that much.”
Leckrone still remembers even the first college students who came through his ranks. Band members like Ray Luick.
“We were going through transition after transition from a really stable organization into one that was going to be having a significant change in the leadership and in the style, in the type of music that was being performed,” Luick said.
Luick was drum major when Leckrone first came to Wisconsin. He says at first, some were resistant, but the change was gradual, transforming the program over time into what it is today.
“To bring that sense of enthusiasm, the sense of commitment, the sense of community that the band develops and trying to extend that so it affects the entire university and the state,” Luick told 27 News.
Luick is still involved in the UW Band community, marching again every year with the Alumni Band.
That dedication from the hundreds of students who spent time in the band isn’t overlooked.
“It’s a great sense of personal — I guess you’d call it — pride, when I see people like Ray who still feel that attachment, who still feel like we gave him something that he’s always gonna carry,” Leckrone said.
A life-long commitment
Those alumni members aren’t the only ones who’ve stuck around. One of the many unique things about the UW Band is the volunteer field assistants, some still giving back their time decades after graduating from the university.
Janice Stone, the band’s first female tuba player, is one of those dedicated volunteers. She’s been a field assistant since the early 90s.
“I’ve never been an adult and not done this, so next year’s gonna be weird.” she said, laughing. “I’ll look forward to watching the band and I’ll just miss being here.”
It’s the band family that’s kept her coming back.
“This group becomes your family and then also you have shared experiences with all of these people,” she said. “We’re doing that together and so those shared experiences bring people closer together.”
She’s one of the many band members who met their future spouse on the field. Her husband, Michael Stone, is also a field assistant.
“We’ve been married for 26 years. We’ve been together 27-something years, it’s all been with this. So for everyone, it’s a huge loss. For us, it’s just different because this has been a third of our year every year for, gosh, our entire time together,” Michael Stone told 27 News.
This is also the Stones’ final game helping direct the band at Camp Randall. The field assistants are all retiring their roles when Leckrone is finished.
It’s bittersweet, but they know their leader’s mission won’t be lost.
“Striving for excellence and the energy of the band,” Janice Stone told 27 News.
The legacy lives on
The university is doing a national search for a replacement band director.
For Leckrone, he knows no matter who takes over, the spirit and traditions of the band won’t ever go away.
“I keep saying to the band, it’s supposed to be fun. There are days when it isn’t fun, but the overall thing is supposed to be fun and I hope that’s what remains,” he said.
And he’ll always have the 50 years of memories — his moments of happiness.
“The Rose Bowl,” he said, about his favorite moment as director. “That was sort of the culmination. Suddenly, the band realized what we’d been talking about for 25 years. We gotta try to get to the Rose Bowl. I’d written it off. I thought it’s never gonna happen, but it did happen.”
While the band will take the field at Camp Randall for the last time this season, the band will soon start preparing for a bowl game performance. And Leckrone will stay on with the university through spring semester, putting on his final Spring Concert at the Kohl Center.
But after that?
“I’ve been asked the question a great deal: what are you gonna do next?,” he told 27 News. “The absolute honest answer is: I don’t know.”
You can help Mike Leckrone celebrate his final game at Camp Randall on Saturday. Organizers of Badger Bash will be pulling out all the stops, with some special Mike-themed giveaways and other surprises. Badger Bash starts at 12 p.m. at Union South, ahead of the game at 2:30 p.m.