Wanda Hembree was a freshman in high school when she saw the West Virginia University Mountaineer Marching Band perform for the first time during one of the band’s visits to Cumberland, Maryland. The performance influenced her to attend WVU and become a member. Now, more than 40 years later, she’s giving back to the band that has given her so many fond memories.
“I knew I was going to go to college but I had no idea where,” Hembree said. “That performance was the moment for me that decided it.”
Hembree majored in biology when she got to WVU and performed in the Pride of West Virginia for four years, ultimately graduating in 1983. Medical school at Marshall University was next for Hembree, but she wasn’t away from Morgantown for too long. She came back to Morgantown for her residency, and has been here ever since.
According to Hembree, her experience in the Pride of West Virginia made Morgantown feel like home.
“It can be overwhelming when you first get to Morgantown, especially if you’re like me and come from a small town with a small high school,” Hembree said. “Then you spend a week at band camp with this group of people and now everywhere you go on campus, you see someone you know. It was a great feeling in such a big place.”
Being a member of the marching band also afforded Hembree with new experiences off campus.
“In my first week of classes, we did a tour of seven shows in four days,” Hembree said. “I went to my first professional football game and my first Broadway show on this tour, played in venues I never imagined.”
Hembree has stayed involved with the band through the WVU Alumni Band, which extends the WVU Marching Band experience beyond the college years by providing social activities for members. She has participated in seven international tours with the Alumni Band, marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Pittsburgh, the Sesquicentennial Parade in Charleston, the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Virginia, and performances at WVU homecoming and alumni basketball games.
“I would never get to Europe on my own to play music, but I can go with the band and make music and have a great time,” Hembree said. “I think of that Willie Nelson song, ‘the life I love is making music with my friends,’ and that's what it is.”
Hembree has also been able to watch her own daughters march with the Pride of West Virginia, a full circle moment.
Her family’s legacy of band membership and Hembree’s dedication to the Alumni Band led to her gift commitment to the Pride Practice Facility, a dedicated space for practice and storage for the 300-person ensemble.
“When I marched, we called our practice area the Mud Bowl,” Hembree said. “The band has since moved to a paved lot that isn’t ideal. There’s a lot of stress fractures from marching on the pavement and it gets really hot.”
Hembree is enthusiastic for the next generation of Pride members to have the space they deserve.
“The band has shaped a large part of my life and I love it, so I wanted to give back and make it better,” Hembree said. “If we can make it a better experience for the students, so they don’t have to run over to the Coliseum to use the bathroom, so they have somewhere to go when a storm breaks out, let’s do it. We have one of the best bands in the country, and this is what they deserve.”