Don Wilcox: WVU marching band director was about pride, personality and performance

Like the state of West Virginia formation on the 50-yard-line during halftime at Mountaineer Field, the tributes kept lining up Tuesday for Don Wilcox, the director emeritus of WVU’s marching band who died the day before after suddenly falling ill.

Make that, Don Wilcox, of WVU’s Pride of West Virginia Marching Band.

Wilcox didn’t come up with that handle.

A network announcer covering the 1975 Peach Bowl did.

No matter: the genial Oklahoman ended up owning it, anyway.

He had already forged the then-unspoken title, in fact, when he landed in Morgantown four years earlier.

It was easy.

Just thank the two-tone Zenith transistor radio you were walking around with in your pocket for the sonic punctuation.

John Denver, the equally genial folksinger, had already made the Mountain State a destination on AM radio with his hit single, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” – and its legendary “Almost Heaven, West Virginia,” opening lyric.

That was a tune the band could get behind, Wilcox said.

Heck, the new director reasoned, it was a tune the entire state could get behind, given the fall Saturday draw of the football team from that certain school in Morgantown.

Wilcox knew just who to call.

He rapped out a cadence on the door of a certain professor in the College of Creative Arts who could craft whole tapestries of music – from bebop to Bach – using his 88 piano keys as the canvas.

“I went to Jim Miltenberger, who’s a brilliant pianist, and asked him to come up with an arrangement for the marching band,” Wilcox recounted in a video interview a few years back.

“Now when we go to a bowl game and we play a few bars of it in the parade, the crowd goes crazy. It was one of the few halfway smart things I ever did.”

Following Dad

In the most elemental of ways, music in general was just about the only thing Wilcox ever did.

He remembered his early days in a lengthy interview with Tim Rhea, of the American Bandmasters Association. Wilcox was a past president of that group.

The once-and-future music educator was born in 1936 in tiny Shattuck, Okla., which is about 170 miles northwest of Oklahoma City.

He was just 11, when his father, whom he idolized, died in a plane crash.

The elder Wilcox, his son said, had a job that was pretty-dang cool. He was a high school band director.

“And him being my hero, I wanted to grow up to be like him,” his son said.

He “inherited” his dad’s clarinet, and started out honking notes by himself.

While he was no Benny Goodman, he was still getting it done. Actual music lessons earned his passage to the University of Michigan as a music major, where he earned his degree in 1958.

He helped pay for school by working in the Oklahoma oil fields in the summer.

Making inroads in the mountains

A master’s from California State College at Long Beach followed in 1966, which he eventually parlayed into a band director job at a small school high in the California desert.

“There were 112 kids in the high school and 100 in the band,” Wilcox said. “Kids had nothing else to do. So I talked them into playing.”

Another teaching stint opened in Southern California, and that led to college gigs in Kansas and then West Virginia.

In 1972, a year after his arrival in Morgantown, he opened the marching band to coeds, “because it was the right thing to do,” he said.

And, he opened the Pride of West Virginia to all of the Mountain State.

Under his tenure, the Pride popped up everywhere – and it still does.

Performances at elementary schools, ribbon-cuttings at shopping complexes and at high school band spectacular gatherings in your school district.

The Macy’s Parade, and more.

“Simple Gifts.”

“Hail, West Virginia.”

And “Country Roads,” of course.

Band director for life

Wilcox is survived by his wife, four grown children and numerous grandchildren.

Passels of them are carrying on the family business, as teachers and musicians.

While funeral arrangements are incomplete, a celebration of Wilcox’s musical life and times is being planned in Morgantown this fall.

A community gathering will also be Saturday in Michigan, where Wilcox and his wife had lived in recent years, his son, Lee Wilcox said in a social media message.

WVU’s alumni band is also planning a concert of Wilcox’s favorite tunes during a special road trip to the Wolverine State in July.

It was easy to sing West Virginia’s praises, the band director said. He meant both the school and the state.

“There were a lot of good kids,” he said of the musicians who came through The Pride and other musical assemblages he directed in Morgantown.

The Pride of West Virginia garnered its national reputation, he said, because of all those students who put on the uniform and picked up their instruments to play.

“If I had won the lottery, I still would have gone to rehearsal the next day,” he said in that bandmaster’s association interview.

“I never viewed it as ‘work.’ I viewed it as what I always wanted to do.”