A Marching Milestone

Marching band celebrates 125th-straight year at State

In a task that was part labor of love and part schoolwork, Kevin Kessler spent countless hours going through the archives at the H.M. Briggs Library, viewing photos, newspapers, yearbooks and course catalogs, in addition to conducting personal interviews to determine the history of what is now known as The Pride of the Dakotas marching band.

A 1998 State graduate in music education, Kessler returns to campus this fall as the director of athletic bands. He becomes the second-ever former member to lead The Pride, following his predecessor, Jim Coull. The South Dakota State University marching band became known as The Pride in 1966 when public address announcer Craig McNamara bestowed that title following a halftime show.

Kessler has produced a nearly 200-page document on The Pride’s history for his dissertation to complete his doctorate program at the University of Iowa.

All of the time researching paid off with a few surprises.

Prior to starting the project, Kessler was always told the school band started in 1902.

“One of the biggest surprises was just how long the band has been in existence at SDSU,” Kessler said. “For a long time, people have said 1902 was the target date for when the band started. That’s an accurate date in regard to when the band started doing formal concerts on its own. As a concert band, it held its first formal concert in 1902. However, the band has been performing on campus as far back as 1885 and 1886.”

While South Dakota State was founded in 1881, classes started in 1884, giving the band a start in its first years.

After that early start, the band then took a break, according to Kessler’s findings. Then he struck his version of a gold mine.

“The biggest find of my research was the declaration in the Regents’ minutes providing for a military band on campus. That was in August 1890,” Kessler said. “From there, I was able to find evidence that there has been a band in continuous service since that date. Finding band activity 17 years prior to what most people had acknowledged as the beginning of a band at SDSU was a big find for me. They’ve been here consistently performing since 1890 for … military functions, ROTC maneuvers on the campus green and even traveled with the athletic teams to various competitions. To find that level of activity, that early in the university’s history, was probably the biggest surprise.”

Another surprise came when the former drum major got the call asking if he would take over The Pride.

“First, I was thrilled because when I left my previous position (band director at Brandon Valley High School) and went to Iowa to work on my doctorate, it was certainly my hope and my family’s hope, to get back into this area because this is where all of our family is,” Kessler said, noting his wife, Heidi is a 1996 graduate.

They have a 9-year-old daughter, Karianne. “This was home. We were just really grateful how well things timed out with Jim Coull’s retirement and then blessed I made it through the interview process and got the job. I could have just as easily not gotten the job. They could have hired somebody else. I was just absolutely honored, and my family was thrilled we’d be coming back to the area and back home.

“My second reaction was a little bit of panic,” Kessler continued, breaking into a laugh. He admitted not considering running The Pride as a career when at State. “It was ‘Wow, I’m the director of The Pride.’ It’s a great job and one that comes with a lot of responsibility and expectations amongst the current members and the former members as they have a certain level of excellence and expectation for this band.”

As an alumnus, Kessler made a guest appearance with The Pride when it played in the National Millennium Independence Day in Washington, D.C., in 2000.

“I was working at the music camp and jokingly asked (former director) Jim (McKinney) if he needed a chaperone. He said ‘We had a couple of people cancel and would you be willing to march?’ As a result, I jumped in with them for that trip, which was a lot of fun,” Kessler said.

That experience, in addition to his undergraduate days with the band, gives Kessler some insight on what it takes to be a member of The Pride.

“Does it put a different spin on it? It’s hard for me to tell because I don’t know any different,” said Kessler, who is still working on how he will put his stamp on the band. “It brings a higher level of understanding of what kind of student is in The Pride, what their backgrounds are. We primarily draw students from South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. We’re pretty Midwestern and pretty rural. The excitement and energy that the band produces, and the entertainment value it brings to game day wherever they perform, that’s the expectation of that band.”

And now it’s up to Kessler to keep that feeling going.

Matt Schmidt

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