Mississippi’s Petal High Band marches into history

With a stopover at Warren County’s Skyline High for a final practice

By Roger Bianchini
Warren County Report

From left, Principal Trombonist E.J. Miller, Flute Section Leader Ericka Morris, Drum Major Greg Barr and Color Guard Captain Josie Taylor. Photo by Roger Bianchini.
From left, Principal Trombonist E.J. Miller, Flute Section Leader Ericka Morris, Drum Major Greg Barr and Color Guard Captain Josie Taylor. Photo by Roger Bianchini.

Prepare yourselves for “a memory of a lifetime” was the general message of Warren County and Town of Front Royal officials greeting a high school band from Petal, Mississippi, to Front Royal and Skyline High School on Jan. 19. While school was closed for Martin Luther King Day, school administrators opened two-year-old Skyline High’s doors and grounds to allow the Petal High School Marching Band a final outdoor rehearsal prior to their appearance in the Presidential Inaugural Parade the following day.

And while the Petal Marching Band is no stranger to honors, state championships and appearances around the nation, several band members we spoke to seemed to realize the import of the approaching moment to themselves, their band, school and nation.

Preparing for the cold - whats that tuba doing on your head? Photo by Roger Bianchini.
Preparing for the cold - what's that tuba doing on your head? Photo by Roger Bianchini.

“This is the biggest thing since Kennedy’s Inauguration,” Principal Trombonist E.J. Miller observed of the mood of many younger Americans.  For while President John F. Kennedy may be ancient history to the teens of the early 21st Century, his well reported appeal to the nation’s youth of the early 1960’s rings familiar to their own generation’s emotional connections to President Obama.

“It’s a true blessing for me to be in this organization and to see the President and to be able to march in the parade. To be in the band selected out of all the different bands in Mississippi is a true blessing and an honor,” 17-year-old T.J. Taylor said as he stood with fellow baritone player Joy Grimsley preparing to brave temperatures 30-some degrees colder than characteristic of their home town.

Petal High Assistant Band Director Chris Word is greeted by Warren County Administrator Doug Stanley and Schools Superintendent Pam McInnis. Photo by Roger Bianchini.
Petal High Assistant Band Director Chris Word is greeted by Warren County Administrator Doug Stanley and Schools Superintendent Pam McInnis. Photo by Roger Bianchini.

We asked Trombonist Miller if the cold and snow might dampen the Mississippi band’s spirits come inauguration day.
“It doesn’t matter. My mind’s not going to be focused on that, my mind is going to be focused on how awesome it is to be there,” Miller enthused, along with Flute Section Leader Ericka Morris, who agreed wholeheartedly that the weather would be irrelevant to the events of the following day for the Petal contingent.

And while the temperatures on the 19th hovered slightly below freezing throughout the day, as if on cue as the band left the comfortable confines of Skyline High’s auditorium around 1:45 p.m., the clouds lifted, snow flurries evaporated and the sun even peeked out to cast a soft glow as the 158-strong Petal Marching Band and Color Guard warmed to their task in the Skyline football stadium parking lot.

As the brass and reeds warmed both their lips and instruments at one end of the lot and the drumline beat a steady rhythm at the other end, it quickly became apparent why Petal High was one of 70 marching bands chosen to participate in the 56th US Presidential inauguration from a pool of 1,300 applicants.

“They are better than my high school band already and they’re only warming up,” Dan McDermott whispered to me in case any ghosts of his high school past were listening.

“Yea, this droning horn and reed warm up with the drums rattling away down there is pretty avant garde – I wonder what their stage band is like?” I wondered aloud.

Ninth-grade Principal Mike Lott, one of Petal High’s four principals, pointed out that 40 percent of his school’s 1,200, 9-12 grade students are involved in music in one way or another.

The Petal High School Band website – http://www.petalbands.org  – notes it “is the largest organization in the Petal School District, comprised of approximately 160 students in grades 9-12. During the fall, these students are a part of the All-Superior PHS Marching Band. The band performs at football games and makes appearances at parades and community events as well as competitions throughout the South. During the winter and spring, the band is divided into two performing ensembles that include the PHS Symphonic and Concert Bands. The Petal Band program now also offers winter performing opportunities with the Indoor Visual Ensemble and the Indoor Percussion Theatre. All of these groups have received continuous superior ratings in state and regional competitions.” – And some federal, state and local bureaucrats and politicians would have you believe the arts don’t enrich the US student experience enough to fund directly.

Lott said that while the Town of Petal’s population is about 10,000, the school district’s population reaches beyond the town limits into Forrest County to serve a total of about 25,000 people.

And while the band is no stranger to travel and awards, Trombonist Miller said the band’s director didn’t initially alert the band about the application for the Inaugural Parade out of fear of setting his oung charges up for a big fall.

“Our Band Director Mr. “G” (Garnard) made the statement to our Hattiesburg American Newspaper that he didn’t even expect to make it, that’s why he didn’t say anything [to us] about it. And then when he got the papers back it was a huge surprise for us.”

And speaking of huge – Warren Public Schools Superintendent Pamela McInnis noted that Skyline (60) and the new Warren County High (50) bands combined were smaller than the Petal contingent.

As the band practiced on Skyline High’s grounds under the watchful eyes of Assistant Directors Ryan Saul and Chris Word on Jan. 19, Director Mr. Mike Garnard was in DC running through the logistics of the Petal High School Band’s march through history the following day.

“We congratulate you on your achievement, and maybe someday our schools can reach the kind of achievement you have – we hope so at least,” the Petal band, school officials and sponsors were told during welcoming ceremonies in Skyline’s auditorium.

Front Royal, VA Mayor Eugene Tewalt, Warren County, VA Board of Supervisros Chairman Archie Fox, FR Vice Mayor Bret Hrbek, Town Councilmen Shae Parker and Chris Holloway and Warren County, VA Administrator Doug Stanley, his wife and family joined McInnis in welcoming the Petal contingent to Front Royal as a staging area for its jump to the nation’s capital just 70 miles to the east the following day.

Also lauded for their work in facilitating Petal’s trip north were members of Rotary Clubs and Chambers of Commerce on both ends of the trip. Local resident Stephanie Fretwell of the Linden Rotary, whose sister lives in the Forrest County-Hattiesburg area of Mississippi where Petal is, acknowledged several months of logistical efforts to see that Petal High would have their place on the national stage on Jan. 20, 2009, as Barack H. Obama is inaugurated as the 56th President of the United States. Deborah Reynolds (not that one, you aging movie buffs), both a Petal Rotarian and Chamber President thanked her local counterparts for their help, and other local officials for their support and assistance as the Petal Band got in its final practice before the big day.

And remember what the late opera singer Pavorotti said about practice, kids – “If I don’t practice for one day, I notice; if I don’t practice for two days, the band notices; and if I don’t practice for three days, the audience notices.”

The band arrived in Front Royal at about 11 a.m. on Jan. 19 after an overnight stay in a Roanoke Holiday Inn. They descended on the South Street Burger King and McDonald’s for lunch before arriving at Skyline to be greeted by Activities Adminstrator Buck Smith at 1 p.m. They will stay at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center in southern Warren County the evening of the 19th before heading east early.

“I think they told us we’d be getting a 4 a.m. breakfast call,” one band member pondered. That estimate was later pared back even earlier as those around the band said they were expecting to pull out of the 4-H Center and Warren County by 4:30 a.m. for their march into the historical American landscape.

(Dan McDermott contributed to this story)

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