AROUND THE OVAL
About the Montanan
by Kerry Thomson
LEADER OF THE BAND
On a crisp Homecoming morning, their sounds float through the maple leaves, up Mount Sentinel and to the M. You hear their instruments and the cheers of parade-goers long before you glimpse them marching south on Higgins Avenue. At the front you see Fred Nelson, leading one of the parade's most revered entriesăthe University Alumni Band.
Every Homecoming Nelson gives alumni band members two rare giftsăthe chance to reunite with old friends and a moment to relive their college days, when performances at football games and parades filled their weekends and solidified lifelong relationships.
And he gives UM, visiting alumni and Missoula a chance to cheer a group of musicians who meet once a year, practice only a few hours before their performance, and put an entertaining spin on the idea of "volunteer work."
Nelson was honored this year when he was named UM's Outstanding Volunteer for his work with the Alumni Band, but he's quick to credit others with the band's popularity, naming many who also have been "instrumental" to its success, including his wife, Marlene. They are just as quick to turn the spotlight back to him.
"Fred is the alumni band," says John Combs, a member of the group's organizing committee and the band director for nearby Hellgate High School. "He's had the vision and he's the soul behind the whole thing."
Tom Cook, chair of UM's music department, envisioned a reunion for former UM band members in 1985, but it was Nelson who orchestrated the get-together and Nelson who has kept the band alive and performing at Homecoming each autumn for more than a decade.
"Fred, the natural, assertive leader that he is, stepped forward and took the project by the horns," Cook says. "Fred was just very enthusiastic about it. I think that many people in the Alumni Band would simply not come to Homecoming if they didn't have this special group of friends to be with."
Cook and Combs serve with Nelson on the band's organizing committee. They and others such as committee member Hal Herbig meet several times a year to plan the band's activities and brainstorm ideas for the group's quarterly newsletter. Then they stand back to watch Nelson turn their ideas into the annual musicians' reunion.
Alumni who participate in the band are treated to an entire weekend of events courtesy of the organizing committee. Friday, players meet at the Music Building for their only practice sessionăa few hours before they break and head for a banquet and social hour. Saturday morning, it's time for the parade, then they're off to the football game for another performance, followed by a tailgate barbecue after the game. That all these events flow so smoothly lends credit to the band leaders' talent for putting things together.
Nelson earned a bachelor's degree in music at UM in 1952, spent two years in the armed forces fighting in the Korean War, then returned to the University to graduate with a master's degree in music in 1956. He served as band director for Sentinel High School in Missoula for sixteen years.
Alumni Band members have hair cuts to thank for their mentor's budding career. Nelson's musical life began when he was seven, during the Depression. His father, a barber in Kalispell and a trombonist in a local band, traded several haircuts to get his son a trumpet. Now at age 71, Nelson has two grown sons of his own, Niles and Grant, who play the trumpet and the trombone, respectively.
"He's our model, he's our leader, he's our mentor," says Cook. "He sets the tone of the whole weekend (and) I think it does make a difference for the whole University."
Kerry Thomson '92 is a reporter for the Ravalli Republic.
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