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 April, 2005


 A tribute to Uniontown's legendary Orville Conn

The Marching Magic and the Magician

By Al Owens

A few years back, I encountered the Reverend Robert Crable while walking the track at Uniontown Area High School. Reverend Crable had been an equipment manager for the Uniontown High School football team in the 1960’s. He’s as nostalgic as I am. What he told me that day shocked and thrilled me. It seems one night in the ‘60’s, while the Red Raiders were in the locker room preparing to take the field against yet another in a series of hapless victims, the Uniontown Red Raider Marching Band beat them to the punch!

As the reverend’s story goes, the opposing team was still on the field loosening up. The band marched to the edge of the field in near silence. Then suddenly, without much warning, the band exploded into action! Reverend Crable says by the startled looks on the other team’s faces, Uniontown’s football team had already won the game.

Being a Red Raider band member myself, I’d like to take credit for that win, but logic and Reverend Crable would never allow me to do that. Instead I’ll give the real credit to the band’s legendary Maestro - Orville Conn. A man I’ve given a lot of credit to, and for a lot of things, since the days he surprisingly allowed me to wear Maroon and White.
You see, I was too slow for basketball, too skinny for football and too scared to wrestle. To play in the band, all I needed to do was convince people I knew something about music. (To me, that’s been my greatest accomplishment in life!)

Mr. Conn, you must understand, knew music - and how to play it. After graduating from Uniontown High School in the early 1950’s, he split his music teaching duties at Washington High School, with a tour as a bugle player in the US Army’s 61st Army Band. By 1960, he was ready to come back to Uniontown so he could inflict his musical "savagery" on opposing football teams. Shortly after he arrived he took the Red Raider band to Pasadena, California to perform in the Tournament of Roses Parade. That morning the entire country got a chance to see Mr. Conn and his charges do what crowds in Uniontown, Pennsylvania learned the previous fall. On that New Year’s day a spirited group of high stepping, instrument swinging young musicians caused jaws to drop nationwide. A couple of years later, the nation’s jaws got another Orville Conn workout. This time he’d help slap a little Uniontown, Pa. on the Orange Bowl Parade.

Mr. Conn may have been feeling very good about what he’d been accomplishing with his marching and concert bands, along with his work with Uniontown High’s choral groups, until I showed up in 1963. I must have been his toughest challenge. I still fondly remember that glorious Monday morning in August of ’63, when I walked from the East End to the field behind Ben Franklin Junior High School for a week as grueling as my military basic training.
Did I say fondly? Well I remember it. I remember how, by week’s end, I’d learned to march, with my thighs lifted to parallel the ground, with my toes pointed downward and my head held high. I’d learned to walk about 15 years earlier, but this was something completely different. Especially since Orville Conn’s “line leaders” made you do it blindfolded, and so that with every eighth step one of your toes would have to touch a five yard marker every time! (Something I can still do to this day, I think!)

All of this was Orville Conn’s way of saying, “If you want to wear Maroon and White, you’ll have to suffer to within an inch of your life to do it”. I suffered quite willingly, of course. That’s because I’d seen entire stadiums stand and cheer when the Red Raider band would march onto a football field and prance off it. Prancing, by the way, was another of Orville Conn’s inventions. Or the US Army’s. Or the devils. At the close of every halftime show, there’d be four blasts from a whistle, and the Red Raider Band would simply go into a quick step (to a drum beat) until they mercifully reached the stands. I’m not sure if the crowds were cheering because Orville Conn hadn’t killed us, or because they just loved watching young musicians "leave it all on the field".

"Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting the marching magic of the maroon and white Raider Marching Band". That was our battle cry. The signal to send visiting teams (according to Rev. Crable) and entire stadiums into fits of frenzy. I still remember marching tall along Main Street for May Day and Fall Foliage parades and having the younger kids running up and marching along side us. Those kids just wanted to be part of something special. To them it was so rousing and positive that they’d join piccolo players and tuba players to feel it. And I knew exactly how they felt. I was so honored to have been taught pride and precision by a man who seemed to have created them that I wished everybody in town could join us.

A couple of years ago, I made the effort to contact Mr. Conn. I emailed him a message and told him how much I’d appreciated what he’d done for me and this town. I was floored to know he still remembered me. (I think because I may have played a horn that somehow played the all the wrong notes for three solid years) He told me he’d left Uniontown in 1968 and moved across the state and taught other budding musicians for a number of years, before retiring in the mid-1990’s.

Unfortunately, after those kind words were exchanged, I never heard from Orville Conn again. Last week, I got a message from his son Matt, who told me his father had died after a long battle with cancer. As you may tell, I was deeply saddened. Orville Conn had provided so many warm personal memories for me, and so many wonderful moments for all of us who’d heard and seen the powerful results of his work, he should never be forgotten.

Gabriel, Orville Conn is on the way. You’d better get ready to learn to prance!