• Clemson Band Sings for the President

    By John H. Butler,
    Tiger Band Director, 1960-66

In 1960, both John Fitzgerald Kennedy and I reached enviable positions of power, he to the presidency of the United States, I to the position of director of bands at Clemson College. He was 43, a recent alumnus of the U.S. Senate, I was 28, a newly-minted master’s graduate of the University of Georgia.

Clemson Band Portrait

The regular conference meeting between the football squads of Clemson College and the University of Maryland was an away game in 1962, shortly after Kennedy’s triumph in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although the Tiger Band did not attend all away games that necessitated overnight stays, the trip to Maryland was to be our major trip for the season.

To help defray the cost of our overnight stay, I arranged for housing in barracks at the Army’s Fort Meade, in Maryland, which allowed for possible sight-seeing opportunities in nearby Washington, D.C. Representative William Jennings Bryan Dorn arranged a private tour of the White House for the Friday before the game.

I contacted our state’s junior senator, Strom Thurmond, and broached the subject of an audience with the president. A secretary called to say that a meeting with the president would be considered. He gave me his pager number, and said I should call him when the band arrived for the tour. He made it clear that the chances of that meeting actually taking place were remote.

When we arrived at the White House, I paged the secretary, but was told he was not immediately available, and that he would catch up with me. Only a few minutes later, he pulled me from the line and told me that our group would, in fact, meet privately with President Kennedy in the Rose Garden.

A short time after the band filed into the Rose Garden, the doors to the porch opened, and President. Kennedy stepped out, extending his hand, and calling me by my first name as we shook hands. He was every inch the same handsome, charismatic man the entire world knew. He welcomed us to the White House, and as we visited, he was completely charming, putting everyone at ease. He mentioned that he had seen Clemson play in the Orange Bowl. He pointed out a tree in the garden, and said Andrew Jackson had once remarked he was sorry he hadn’t hanged John C. Calhoun from it (Calhoun had been vice-president under Jackson, and had resigned his office). One of the band members spoke up and noted that the Clemson campus was on the former estate of John C. Calhoun. The president replied, “Oh yes, I know that.” It seemed clear he had had someone do a bit of research about the college before our meeting!

When the secretary ushered us out of the Rose Garden and out of the White House, I told him about the failure of our photographer to take any pictures. He assured me the White House photographer would have taken at least one picture, and that he would send the hundred-or-so copies we would need to give one to each person in our group. A few days after our return to Clemson, I received some one hundred 8”x10” copies of two different photographs for distribution. I ensured that copies were sent to local newspapers and television stations, and it was widely published and shown, usually accompanied by a caption something like, “Clemson Band Sings for the President.”

He welcomed us to the White House, and as we visited,
he was completely charming, putting everyone at ease.

The mood of the band members was joyous as we left the White House, and their high spirits continued through the game the next day, buoyed by what would be for probably all involved, one of the most memorable experiences of their lives. Certainly it was all of that for me, personally.

Clemson won the game the next day, and the team added a crowning touch to the season by beating arch-rival South Carolina a week later.

The Clemson football schedule for the following season ended with the traditional grudge game against the University of South Carolina, set for Saturday, November 23, 1963. Tiger Band was to make the one-day trip to Columbia, of course, and on Friday afternoon I was driving around in my red 1961 Chevrolet Impala convertible with the top down. The weather was perfect, and I was accompanied by Tiger Band Drum Major Jeff Tisdale as we were seeing to a few final adjustments for our next-day’s trip. When I stopped in at my house to pick something up, my mother told me the president had just been shot! Jeff and I got back in my car and drove to campus to spread the news. We were listening to developments on the radio as we parked in front of the chemistry building (now known as Brackett Hall). A crowd of students quickly gathered around to listen to the radio. No one was saying anything; everyone seemed too stunned to speak.

Later, very soon after President Kennedy’s death was announced, announcement of all manner of cancellations began coming in. Among those cancellations was the Clemson-Carolina game scheduled for the next day. Shortly after that, it was announced further that the game was rescheduled for Thursday of the next week: Thanksgiving Day. It seemed that most members of Tiger Band, as well as myself, felt a special sense of loss that afternoon, because of our shared experience with Mr. Kennedy almost exactly a year earlier.

On Monday I made some adjustments to the ending of the halftime show we had planned to present on Saturday. Mainly, I inserted a solemn arrangement I had made of the Navy Hymn (Eternal Father, Strong to Save) to conclude the show, ending in a soft “amen.” Then, for the only time in Tiger Band history, as far as I know, the field exit would be made to music other than “Tiger Rag.”

It seemed the band that traveled to Columbia that Thanksgiving Day was a totally different one from the boisterous and often rowdy group I was accustomed to. No one even seemed to mind that we had Dining Hall sack lunches for Thanksgiving dinner. At halftime of the game, as I was conducting Eternal Father from a ladder on the field, I seemed to feel profound grief and respect for our fallen leader from every one of the tens of thousands of spectators in the stadium. There was not a sound to be heard except for the somber strains of the hymn as it reached its quiet conclusion and final “amen.”

As I let the final note very gradually fade to nothingness, I could observe tears streaming down the faces of quite a few of those band members closest to me. Aside from a few flags gently flapping in the end zones, there was not a sound to be heard. I must admit that I, too, was crying at that moment.

Even now, well over a half-century later, I choke up when I recall the occasion, or talk about it. Following the Navy hymn, I conducted the first 16 measures of “God Bless America,” played strongly and at a measured pace, before the band stepped off to exit the field and conclude our presentation. Many people were standing as we left the field, and there was no applause or cheering to break the spell — only a reverent silence.

8 replies
  1. Richard Webb says:

    I was in the Band there that day, 55 years ago, along with the whole group– including 7 sets of brothers!
    Ha, little did we know. Nevertheless, it felt pretty special to be on the grounds there with him. Seems like a minute ago, playing Dixie and Tiger Rag for him.
    Thank you John Butler for writing this article and sharing your memories.
    Richard Webb

    Reply
    • John Stadalsky says:

      I too was there. I only played in the band that one year- will never forget.
      I was the short trumpet player that started practice with a cast on my foot.
      I will allways appreciate Mr Butler giving me the opportunity to be in the band that year.
      John Stadalsky

      Reply
    • Harmon Reed says:

      JFK asked us to sing. When told instruments were on the bus he asked us to sing. Then the President said he hoped we played better that we sang. Way too many people in this picture not with us. Nice job JHB. Mone

      Reply
  2. James Webb says:

    Thanks John Butler for the memories; 55 years ago and it seems like just a moment. This is a fabulous article.
    I was there and it was a special time. Little did we know all of the background work that went on.
    Talk about irony —- after graduation in the Air Force ROTC, I was stationed at Ft. Meade assigned to NSA!
    Jim Webb ‘63

    Reply
  3. Wayne Newton says:

    . I was a fortunate participant in this memorable story and learned background information that I did not know from Dr. Butler’s fine article. There is no doubt that Tiger Band was the highlight of my years as a Clemson student, one of many others who enjoyed the leadership and wit of Dr. John Butler. It was a historical time for us all…meeting President Kennedy…his assassination…school integration…so many changes requiring effective leadership which was always there for us. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Wayne Rish says:

    What a great summary of a great experience we shared meeting President Kennedy at the White House!
    Thank you, John Butler; hope you are well.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *