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Saturday, August 28, 2010

A final "Hubba, Doc!" - for FAMU's Dr. William P. Foster, 1919-2010

A recent and unseasonably cool August day found yours truly in Bed, Bath & Beyond and catching not just a sale, but glimpses of a lost memory. Nervous moms with teens in tow traipsing the aisles, plucking items to make the transition from bedroom to dorm room comfy and less traumatic. Sale signs announcing the best deals on bean bags, sheets and, of course, the ubiquitous foot locker – standard requirement at one time for incoming freshmen at Florida A&M University.

Since I’m no longer mistaken for one of those freshly-minted college-bounds, nostalgia rose watching the scene, remembering the role I played with my mother as we prepped for my journey to Tallahassee. There was eagerness and anxiousness about discovery.

During my time at FAMU, two figures were seminal. One was our brilliant and gregarious president Dr. Fred Humphries. Standing a good 6’6, possessing advanced degrees in chemistry and a voice that could be mistaken for God’s – even when sounding tipsy at football games – he made a quick impression on the hordes of us who scurried across campus, in search of knowledge and keys to brighter worlds.

The other was smaller in physical stature, but not so in presence, and that was Dr. William P. Foster.

For most colleges of note, football tends to be the celebrated focal point for students and alumni alike. At FAMU, it’s all about the Marching 100, the band that has performed before audiences at home and abroad to dropped jaws and deafening roars with each show. From college classics to TV commercials to Super Bowls to America’s representatives at the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day in Paris, the band has been there, done that. President Obama was just the latest graced with an Inauguration Day presence.
I used to wonder why people who knew me for years had started asking what instrument I played when I told them of my college decision. When I landed on the Hill, I understood. Without a hint of humility, longtime game announcer Joe Bullard would affirm fans and put visitors on notice, “The Marching 100. Often imitated, never duplicated. Like Coke, it’s the real thing.”

The band’s precision twists, twirls and splits make for eye candy – and unparalleled grace through fitness. Ask any member of the band about the ability to hold a “90” and an instrument for extended periods. But as stunning as the choreography tends to be, that it is twinned with outstanding musicianship and rigor in performance propelled FAMU’s name to added heights.

All of that was borne from Foster.

There was a reason he was known as “The Law.” There had been a musical team before his arrival. Foster made the “100.” He revolutionized the college marching band, and his 1968 manual became the bible for baton wielders nationwide. High school students – and their band directors – clawed at the chance to learn from him during summer camps and workshops. Band bystanders would wander down to the hollowed practice grounds known as the Patch and watch that motley crew of players rehearse every step and chord.

But when Foster ambled up his step ladder, the effort went stratospheric. He demanded perfection. Every time. And if it didn’t sound right, if it didn’t look right, he demanded it again. And again. And again. The results were evident.

To be a member of his band meant to be dedicated, gifted – but not necessarily black, or male. If you could deliver on his demands, you were in. His vision never wavered. The focus was sound and fury, from 1946 when he arrived until 1998 when he retired his wand. No “sparkle girls.” No distractions.

Early in my reporting days, as a FAMUAN staffer, I once tracked down stories of hazing within the band. The actions grieved him. Foster insisted on discipline, but said he abhorred the rituals that came to light. He found talent without character distasteful, as much as showmanship without substance.

When Drumline was in production, it was known that while modeled off band heritage like that of the "100," FAMU would not participate. It was not going to pull that many students from their studies for that length of time – to lose to a fictional college. Rattler Nation wouldn’t have it. Neither would Foster.

Being there as he wound down his conducting days was an added treat to the FAMU experience, like watching living history. You could see the reverence his band had for him, appreciate how the music department he dominated cultivated artists ranging from Nat and Julian “Cannonball” Adderly to Wycliffe Gordon. Countless smiles would pour from the band room when he closed out the final home rehearsals with one phrase and praise: “I think the ‘100’ is ready.”

You never had to march in the band to feel the pride that swelled in your heart with every show. You didn’t have to fret if the football team was getting clobbered on the field. As a Rattler, you just hold your breath and wait for the hundreds of young men and women in green suits, orange capes and white hats to wind onto the field. Then, it's lights, camera, action. The performance of a lifetime. Every time.

It was the joy of fall at FAM. It was a gift bequeathed by Doc Foster -- a legacy to treasure for generations to come.

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