Originally Published on January 22, 2018.
Changing Lives One High Step at a Time
This is the first in a series about how the whole city of Port Huron came together and made a seemingly impossible undertaking happen. If you’re old enough to remember, the Port Huron Big Reds Marching Machine (BRMM) went to the Olympics in 1972. With the benefit of a few years, the 250 members and chaperones who went have realized just what a feat it was – to engineer a plan for a mammoth project which included raising a staggering sum of money, persevering through nine months of sweaty work to gain the skills to succeed, and finally achieving their goal.
In our articles, we’ll be talking to the people who made it happen and how it changed our lives in the process. We’ll also be looking at what the current Big Reds Marching Machine is up to and the people making them successful. It’s surprising how something that the whole city was proud of 46 years ago still has an impact on today’s BRRM members. We want to do everything we can to ensure their ongoing success. We remember how fortunate we were.
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Big Reds Marching Machine after opening ceremonies & parade in Amsterdam, 1972. Photo source unknown.
There can be no doubt that 1972 was certainly a year in which the Port Huron Big Red Marching Machine put themselves and the city of Port Huron in the limelight. It all began with a televised appearance in a parade. They had no idea that it would lead to an experience of a lifetime.
In November of 1971, with the football half-time shows behind them, the “Marching Machine” was ready to trade the cold weather and the half time football shows for the warmth of the band room and concert music. It was, however, delayed by an invitation from a committee of the City of Detroit. The Big Red Band would grace the streets of Detroit as one of many bands around the country to march in the JL Hudson Thanksgiving Day Parade. Director Eric E. Payton and the Big Reds took to the driver’s training strip, braving the cold and occasional rain to prepare for the televised parade. Practice after practice, they marched up and down the strip perfecting lines, diagonals and music.
While everyone in the country was looking forward to a dinner of turkey, dressing, giblets and pumpkin pie, Thanksgiving for the students and their families was delayed until later as the Big Reds marched through the streets of Detroit to the strains of The Magnificent Seven. Led by the “Lollipops” (individual signs spelling Port Huron on one side and Big Reds on the other), followed by the color guard, the baton twirlers, the display flags and the talented Thunderbirds dance and drill team; Drum Major George Rinderspacher strutted his stuff. In front of the band with his baton, he blew his whistle, signalling the band to strike up the music while passing the reviewing stands and cameras. Proud parents at home watched their kids on the television screen.
Although the band and their director were aware the parade would be televised, they were unaware they were being scrutinized by Robert O’Brien, the band director at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Mr. O’Brien was in charge of selecting fourteen of the best bands in the United States to go to Europe to compete in a competition. The winner of the competition would perform at the Olympics in Munich, Germany. The Fighting Irish band director had been impressed with the high stepping Marching Machine’s performance in the parade. What was to follow next would begin one of the biggest events Port Huron would ever know.
On Monday following the Thanksgiving parade, the Marching Machine was getting ready to get down to work, trading their marching shoes and parades for the warmth of the band room; converting into the Honors Concert Band. While Mr. Payton began the transition to newly selected concert tunes, a telegram arrived at the administration office.
After confirming the validity of the telegram, Principal Chet Wydrzynski determined it was to be delivered to Room 411, the home of the Big Red Band. Wydrzynski headed to the band room to deliver the news himself. After reading the telegram to his students, Mr. Payton listened as the roar that went up all over the room was so deafening; it must have been heard all over the school.
Recalling that day, Payton said, “The excitement among the band members was so great that when the hour ended and the kids moved on to their next class, word of the invitation spread throughout the school like wildfire. Teachers half-heartedly complained that nothing much was taught that day. The entire school was on cloud nine.”
Photo from Times Herald article on the Big Red Marching Band leading up to the Olympic trip. Photo: Ralph Polovich
The invitation was only the beginning. Reality set in as it was determined a staggering $160,000.00 would need to be raised in order to move the two-hundred member Marching Machine to Europe for the fourteen day tour and competition. To put that figure in perspective, it would amount to $1,120,000.00 today. If they were to be successful, it would require the cooperation of the entire community.
Now, the daunting task of raising the money and planning the trip.
Next up: the continuing story of the 1972 Big Red Marching Machine
About the Writers
Kathleen Knowles is a life-long resident of Port Huron and a 1973 graduate of Port Huron High School. After attending St. Clair County Community College, she has worked for credit unions all of her life as well as a professional dog show handler, known for handling Pekingese. Kathleen has been writing fiction for years as a hobby, having posted many stories online.
Pat North, a native of Port Huron, graduated from Port Huron High School and is a proud alumna of the 1972 Big Reds Marching Machine Germany band. She holds a Bachelor’s of Music in Flute Performance from the College Conservatory of Music, Univ. of Cincinnati, with graduate studies at the Univ. of Illinois where she also received her Pilot’s license. Pat was apprenticed to professional flute builder, Jack Moore, and later started her own company, Cincinnati Fluteworks, in 1980, specializing in the technical and acoustical aspects of the construction of the flute as well as branding. She authors a quarterly technical and promotional newsletter for the company. In addition to her passion for the flute, she hosted and produced community radio and TV programs, focused on civil rights and justice issues. Her other passion is for Standard Schnauzers. Pat produced and was co-editor of The Standard Schnauzer Club of America’s Source Book 4, as well as several other educational interactive and print publications for them. She lives in Cincinnati with her very own home bred Standards, but once a Michigander, always a Michigander.
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