The West Virginia University Marching Band this year celebrates 50 years of women in the band.
Jill Cochran is one of the twelve women who joined the marching band that first year after seeing an announcement in The Daily Athenaeum. A Morgantown native, Cochran’s whole family attended WVU. She performed in WVU’s homecoming parades with both her junior high and high school bands before attending WVU.
“For the first time in years, as a freshman in college, I found myself sitting on the curb instead of participating in the homecoming parade because I wasn’t eligible to join WVU’s band,” said Cochran, who majored in public relations.
Behind the scenes, the wheels were already turning to welcome women to the marching band. The establishment of Title IX paved the way for the change as did Don Wilcox, the newly seated Director of Bands at WVU.
“If you know band folks from those years, you know how they just worship Don Wilcox,” said John Hendricks, WVU College of Creative Arts Associate Dean. He was a student under Wilcox before joining the faculty and ultimately taking the helm as Director of Bands when Wilcox retired in 2005.
“Don really welcomed the idea of women in the band, almost like, ‘why wouldn’t we have women in the band?’” Hendricks said. “I think Don had a vision in his mind for the band’s potential and of course he wanted to make that happen but it was also about more than just band, it was about life.”
And life in 1972 was becoming more equal for women than ever before.
By the end of Cochran’s freshman year, the band was open to women and she signed up. She wouldn’t be spending another year on the curb of a WVU Homecoming Parade.
The marching band season always starts with a week-long band camp. According to Cochran, that first day of band camp in 1972 wasn’t completely without some trepidation.
“When we arrived at Band Camp, it was made very clear to us, not so much in words as in actions that the upperclassmen in the band, that they didn't want us there,” Cochran said. “There was a lot of talk from students and even one very loud reporter in Charleston about how women were going to ruin the band, they thought we would be slow or the music would become ‘girly.’”
But Cochran and her 11 female comrades proved the men wrong by the end of band camp, showing them just how fast they could run and the talent they could bring to the Mountaineer Marching Band.
The women were making quite the impact on the band in their first year and as the word grew, more women signed up year after year for marching band. The band was growing so much in fact, that the women on the band took on another role - uniform design.
“We were running out of uniforms and didn’t get new uniforms until 1975, so we had to think on our feet and figure out what to do,” Cochran said. The women whipped out their sewing machines and dye kits and got to work.
“One year we took workman’s overalls and dyed them blue and that’s what the percussion wore,” Cochran said. “Another year we found a shiny, gold material we made shirts out of for the trombones. We absolutely ruined someone’s bathtub in an old Morgantown apartment dying uniforms but the band looked great.”
The original 12 women in the band - nicknamed “The Dirty Dozen” - are Angie Arnold Bowman, Debbie Beatty Stubbs, Cathy Caldwell, Jill Cochran, Judy Harcom Lambert, Mary Beth Kleuber Frazer, Pam Martin Lunn, Joyce Minyard Dawley, Coral Naggy Totten, Judy Smith Gochenour, Regina Wright and Linda Wigington.
Many of “The Dirty Dozen” are still active performers and participants in WVU’s Alumni Band. They will be honored at WVU’s Homecoming game on Saturday, Oct. 29.
“Making music is such a wonderful thing for a kid to learn and to then use that skill to be accepted as part of a group where you can make something creative together,” Cochran said. “But aside from music, you’re making memories and lifelong friendships. Everyone should have the opportunity to do that and it’s a beautiful thing that for the last 50 years, everyone has been able to do that without worrying about gender.”
Women make up a larger percentage of the marching band these days - about half most years. Their impact on the band, the crowds at sporting events and the next generation of performers is immeasurable.
“When you think about the WVU Marching Band, you’re talking about one of the most beloved representatives for the entire state of West Virginia,” said WVU College of Creative Arts Dean Keith Jackson. “The band became an early symbol of equality for the state and has been ever since.
“You might not think that deeply when you see them on Mountaineer field but women fought for the right to represent all of us by being members of the Pride of West Virginia. Never again will a young woman have to sit on the curb!”