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Purdue Band, alumni to celebrate 90 years at Indy 500

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Around 200 band alumni will join the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band on Saturday and Sunday (May 23 and 24) to celebrate its 90th anniversary of association with the Indianapolis 500.

Both the “All-American” Band and a separate alumni band will march in the nationally televised 500 Festival Parade on Saturday in downtown Indianapolis, and both also will appear at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for race day festivities on Sunday.

Several hundred band alumni will join the Purdue 'All-American' Marching Band in celebrating its 90th anniversary with the Indianapolis 500 on May 23-24.

Several hundred band alumni will join the Purdue 'All-American' Marching Band in celebrating its 90th anniversary with the Indianapolis 500 on May 23-24.

Following the tradition established by Paul Spotts Emrick in 1919, it will be the sole duty of the “All-American” Band to perform for the race’s opening ceremonies. As it has for many years, the band will accompany Jim Nabors as he sings “Back Home Again in Indiana” and Florence Henderson as she sings “God Bless America.”

“Having grown up in Indiana around the festivities that surround the Indianapolis 500, there have been two constants over the past 90 years – 500 miles and the Purdue band,” said Jay S. Gephart, director of the “All-American” band. “Drivers change, cars change from year to year, the track and the grandstands have been renovated many times, and the featured singers change, but the Purdue band has been there year after year.

“I can’t imagine the 500 without the Purdue band. It’s as important as singing ‘Back Home in Indiana’ or saying ‘Gentlemen Start Your Engines.’ All are treasured traditions of the 500-mile race.”

Thousands of band members have marched over the bricks and paved surfaces of the 2.5-mile oval track during the past nine decades. Gephart said approximately 200 alumni will participate in this year’s festivities. Three of these marchers claim Emrick as their director, with the oldest participants being two baritone players who graduated in 1954: Roger Stover of Missouri City, Texas, and John Eckert of Brookings, Ore.

Five Purdue directors, beginning with Emrick, brought their bands to the race, and each director will be represented with alumni marchers. Together, the alumni participants have spent almost 700 years in band, and they’re returning from 28 different states, coming from as far as Hawaii, California, Oregon, Florida and New Hampshire.

Purdue’s Big Bass Drum, another Emrick innovation, which has existed 88 years, also will be part of the 500 parade and race festivities.

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