“My Corps” by Jim Wren

Chapter a Week

Chapter 2 = ROOTS

The Phantom Regiment was certainly not the first drum & bugle corps in Rockford. There were American Legion Corps, VFW Corps, Eagles Club Senior Corps, the Blackhawk Senior Corps, and probably others. I have only the barest bits of knowledge about any corps prior to my joining the St. Thomas Crusaders at age 13. I hope that someday, someone is able to fill in the voids in that area.

The Phantom Regiment was born as a result of a lucky set of circumstances involving previous members of the VFW 342 Black & White Corps, and the St. Thomas Crusaders Drum & Bugle Corps.

During WWII there was limited activity in non-military drum & bugle corps as far as I know. In 1946 VFW Post 342 had a very successful corps directed by Alex Haddad. It took 2nd place at the VFW National Convention that was held at Boston, MA that year. The story goes that they would have won but for a number of “ticks” during the inspection prior to the contest.

They had brand new uniforms for the occasion, and there were a number of loose threads that the judge noted. They did very well in captions for drumming, bugling, and marching & maneuvering. For many years, the members held an annual reunion, calling themselves the Boston Charter Club. When the time was right to start another corps at the VFW, it was former members and staff of the 1946 corps that made it happen.

St. Thomas High School was an all-male Catholic high school academy located on West State Street and the Kent Creek in Rockford, IL. It had an enrollment of about 300 boys. I started school there in the fall of 1954 following my graduation from St. Peters Grade School in Rockford.

St. Thomas was run by the Augustinian Fathers, an order of priests devoted to teaching. Two large schools, St. Rita High and Mendel High, both located in Chicago, were the big name schools operated by this order of priests. Both schools had big enrollments, great football teams in the Chicago Parochial League, and each was where the best priests were stationed. These two schools were in constant competition with each other.

On the other hand, St. Thomas was out in the boondocks, had a small number of students, and did not merit the very best teaching priests. Some even said that certain priests were sent out to Rockford as something of a punishment, but there never was any proof of that as far as I know.

Father Joseph McCarthy started the St. Thomas Crusaders. It was originally a band, as such for about 1 year. Fr. McCarthy saw drum & bugle corps in action somewhere, and immediately wanted to convert the band to a drum corps. Just how he acquired the services of Alex Haddad to get this done I do not know. But, when I joined the corps Alex was the director, and Fr. McCarthy called himself the “moderator”.

Truth be told, Father McCarthy was quite a tough teacher and perhaps his discipline methods wouldn’t wash in today’s world. I must admit we weren’t too keen on them as students back then either. It can be said that Father McCarthy’s pedagogy was a motivating factor in the start of an independant junior drum corps in Rockford.

Mike Gallagher and I started kindergarten at St. Peters, spent 9 years there, went to St. Thomas together for 4 years, and then another 4 years together at Northern Illinois University. We joined the Crusaders together in our freshman year shortly after enrolling at St. Thomas in 1954. We both left the Crusaders in the fall of 1956 to join the newly formed corps sponsored by VFW 342.

Fr. McCarthy was very enthusiastic about the corps. He would like to grab the drum major’s mace and march in front of the group as we practiced. He organized various functions to finance the corps, ice cream socials, raffles and so on. I think that he was able to get some funds from various businessmen or other graduates of St. Thomas who were well financed. But, where the original equipment came from, I do not know. We did have only single valve soprano and baritone bugles, snare and bass drums.

There were 4 “tenor” drums; at least that is what they were called. They had a head on top and a silver metal dome on the bottom. They were played with soft headed sticks with thongs which were wound around the fingers so that they could be twirled. The drums had a very hollow sound&we called them the “bloomp de bloomps”.

Bugles were single horizontal valve pitched in the key of G with the valve changing the key to D. We only had sopranos and baritones when we started, although there was one french horn later on. My first bugle even had the mouthpiece chained to the horn itself. Some of the others had some instrumental training, but I had had no brass training prior to joining, just took the horn home and practiced.

The original uniforms were inherited from a defunct Eagles Club senior corps. Heavy wool jackets with tails, pants and shakos. The jackets were bright red with gold frogging, pants blue with gold stripes down the leg, shakos blue with white plumes. Very ugly, and they didn’t fit. They came from a senior corps, were worn by kids.

Speaking of kids, not all the members of the Crusaders were from St. Thomas. Since this was a small school, there simply were not enough bodies to make even a small corps. So, additional members were recruited from the Catholic grade schools in Rockford. Dan Richardson was one of the recruits from St. Patrick School from west Rockford. At its peak, the corps probably had some 24 horns, 9 drummers.

What about a color guard? The original band and early corps had a small guard, 4 boys carrying the national colors, school flag, and 2 rifles. A bigger guard was soon in the offing. Just up the street from St. Thomas was Muldoon High School. This was an all-female school, about the same size as St. Thomas. I remember the well-chaperoned “mixers” that we would have from time to time, but that’s another story!

Here was the place to recruit a color guard. Of course, it would be all female. The color guard consisted of about 12 girls, including Alex Haddad’s two daughters who were not students at Muldoon. When the Phantom Regiment started that is why the guard was all female.

The school colors for St. Thomas were purple and white. As a result, the home made uniforms for the guard were white blouses and purple skirts, blue shakos. What a great site to see the corps in the red, gold, and blue, with the color guard in the white and purple! And yes, I’m being sarcastic.

The first year for the Crusaders was limited to football half times, local parades, and other functions for the school or church diocese. The music was from a published book of drum corps songs, including the ever-popular “Powerhouse March”. Other pieces were from arrangements done for previous local corps. Later we played the “Bells of St. Mary’s”, “Donkey Serenade”, “Bonnie Lassie”.

The second year, my sophomore year in school, saw the corps enter into a couple of contests, never placing higher than the bottom few. By that time, a new set of uniforms had been purchased. Purple shakos with white plumes, purple pants with white stripe. The blouses were mainly white with a purple triangle or “V” in front, purple cuffs. These uniforms went on to be worn by the Purple Knights, and were responsible for that corps name. But, that’s another story for later on.

While Alex did a good share of the instructing for both bugles and drums, there were a number of others who should be mentioned. Bob Kisting, Wilbur Comstock, and Don Ary helped with the drums. Billy Peterson was the main bugle instructor.

While the Crusaders were operating there was a movement to get a corps started at the VFW. Wayne Shigley was, as I remember, the most vocal in touting the advantages of a corps at the VFW. Wayne said that they had equipment, uniforms, and financial support from the VFW Post. Alex Haddad had said on a number of occasions that if a corps would start up that would be able to recruit from all over the city, he would leave St. Thomas and go there. In 1956 the decision was made to start the corps, the first meeting would be held at Memorial Hall for all who were interested.

Now, Mike Gallagher and I were interested in moving out of the Crusaders mainly due to the antics of Fr. McCarthy. We also thought that a citywide drum corps would be the place to go since we were truly interested in competitive drum corps. We were joined shortly by other Crusaders, Louie Nardiello, Ray Dzielak, Dave Hudzinski and Dan Richardson.

The wrath of Fr. McCarthy descended on us while at school, but luckily we did not have him for any classes. The Crusaders remained in existence for another year or two, then folded. Without Alex there were no skilled instructors, all having also moved to the VFW corps. Wendel Porter and Carroll Ford were hired by Fr. McCarthy but were not able to put together much of a unit. Carroll Ford was the father of Robin Ford who was the drum major for the Crusaders, but even Robin left for the newly formed corps. Carroll Ford then obtained title to the uniforms and equipment started up the Purple Knights. His son Robin then left our corps, became the drum major for the Knights.

It is my feeling that the Phantom Regiment would never have been formed without both the St. Thomas Crusaders and VFW 342. The Crusaders were a tangible entity and provided a collection point for old drum corps members who wanted to instruct or otherwise be involved in drum corps. The VFW was somewhat better financed, had equipment, but simply could not get the ball rolling to start a drum corps from scratch on their own. The Crusaders had started to decline mainly due to the students’ dislike of Fr. McCarthy. The Crusaders provided a ready source for management, staff, and members.

NEXT WEEK: “Beginnings”. Learn the real story behind the selection of the name “Phantom Regiment”.

CLICK BELOW to read last week’s installment of “My Corps” – Chapter a Week.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jim Wren is a charter member of Phantom Regiment (1956) and has been active with the corps every year since. He became the corps brass arranger in 1968 and arranged every Phantom Regiment show from then through 1999. Inducted into the DCI hall of Fame in 1994, Jim currently serves as a member of the Phantom Regiment Board of Directors and acts as an advisor to the corps’ design team. Jim lives in Rockford with his wife Laura and works in the insurance industry.

Jim can be reached at [email protected].