An array of white plumes top their heads as they file along singing, “When the Saints Go Marching in.” In the packed bleachers, there are audible “Wows,” and then a truly remarkable occurrence, a standing ovation at a marching band competition as the OPRF Marching Huskies exit the field while a harvest moon peeks above the horizon. 

The Marching Huskies went on to sweep the awards that September evening at the Geneseo Maple Leaf Classic: Best Winds, Best Percussion, Best Color Guard, Best Drum Majors and First Place in their division.

After 10 weeks of intense practice and performance, the marching band season came to a close with a final competition at Illinois State University on Oct. 22. The Marching Huskies took the field, which glowed under the setting sun, and performed their New Orleans-inspired show, “Phat Tuesday.” The four parts lasted 10 minutes, ending with “The Saints Go Marching In.” The crowd sings along and, by the end, is clapping exuberantly. In the stands I overhear, “Why can’t our school do something like that?”

Then it’s time for the awards ceremony. First up is the trophy for “Crowd Appeal” and it goes to OPRF! The awards go on, and the schools qualifying for finals are announced, but it’s over for OPRF.

Two hours later, back in Oak Park, tears are shed, not because of the outcome, but because it’s the last show for the seniors. 

Marching Band has a huge impact on the students, and the seniors will miss it, but they, too, will be missed. Many are section leaders who mentored other marchers. Four of them are drum majors, who led and conducted the band this fall.

In the end, the Marching Huskies are happy. They won an award at a tough competition. They have Crowd Appeal! They don’t use microphones for their solos, duets, and quartets, nor do they employ large props, or recorded effects and audio, like so many other competing bands. They’re proud of winning something at all four competitions this year, including Best Musical Performance at Stagg High School and Best Drum Majors at Benedictine University.

But what makes them winners is who they are. The 127 Marching Huskies volunteer and no one has to try out to be in the band or color guard. The students are from every grade level, including 33 seniors this year. Most stick with it. They meet a few times over the summer, practicing at home, attending an away camp for four days before the school year begins (reportedly grueling yet fun), and then they practice four days a week after school until 5:30 and perform student-led sectionals one day a week. They played at five Friday-night home football games this year, in addition to the four all-day Saturday competitions. Some volunteered to play at the LemonAid fundraiser in River Forest in September. In May, they will march in the Ethnic Fest and Memorial Day parades. 

Marching Band requires serious dedication. At the end of a football game, they can’t stop playing their instruments as they walk — and sometimes teeter, especially those with 30-pound sousaphones wrapped around them.

Setting the tone are the OPRF instructors who oversee the Marching Huskies: Anthony Svedja (music), Drew Fredrickson (marching), and Patrick Pearson (color guard). Numerous parent volunteers do everything from fitting uniforms, to driving trucks, to taking photos, to pitching in at special events, to preparing meals for competitions, to helping at camp among countless other things. The teens respond in kind, pitching in when needed, like the marchers who came back to school at midnight after the last competition to unload a truck filled with equipment, which was late after experiencing trouble on the road.

There are students of all abilities, and even some with disabilities, but it makes no difference. They support each other and become one when they perform. The upperclassmen mentor the freshmen before they start school, showing the new students around. Freshmen see more than 100 familiar faces on their first day, since they met and bonded at band camp. 

It truly is a family, a winning family, with or without trophies.         

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