‘One of those moments I’ll remember’: UW Band Director Mike Leckrone takes his final bow
MADISON, Wis. — University of Wisconsin Director of Bands Mike Leckrone has said over the years, he would know when it was time to retire.
Now that the moment is almost here, Leckrone has mixed feelings.
“I hate to quit doing something that I’ve done for so long and have had so much fun doing, but I’ve accepted it,” Leckrone said. “It’s been an exciting year, and I’ve done what I always tell my students to do: Remember these moments of happiness. In fact, that’s the name of the program this year. The program we’re handing out in the Kohl Center is called ‘Moments of Happiness.'”
After 50 years and at age 82, Leckrone will retire after leading the UW Varsity Band Concert for a final time. Mike has thought long and hard about what he wants to say to the thousands attending the sold out concerts.
“It’s going to be packed with emotion,” Leckrone said. “It will be hard, but I think it’s going to be one of those moments I’ll remember for the rest of my life. There may be a moment of sadness, but there will also be great joy.”
Leckrone said it’s hard to express what the band members have meant to him over the years.
“I’ve had so many kids say, ‘You changed my life,'” Leckrone said. “I don’t know if I’ve changed anybody’s life, but we gave each other a cooperative thing that we could do, and we all feel it. I think anybody who’s been in the band senses that camaraderie. That’s the reason I’ve done it all these years, to have that feeling over and over again.”
Leckrone moved to Madison from Indiana in the fall of 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War protests on the UW campus.
“When I looked out my office window, I could see the chow line and guys with fixed bayonets waiting in line for the noon day meal,” Leckrone said. “It was disconcerting. I came here to think about music, and the reality of the world hit you every day.”
Leckrone took over the position of Band Director from Ray Dvorac, another Wisconsin legend who had been the band director for 34 years.
“Ray was a great mentor,” Leckrone said. “He was a really tough guy. If the kids in the band think I’m tough, they should have known Ray. He was a strong-willed person, but he never said a negative word about what I was doing and to this day it was the most wonderful thing he ever did for me.”
Leckrone is responsible for some of the most beloved and enduring traditions at Badger football games. He started the 5th Quarter and the chicken dance.
“I’ve made a few mistakes too,” Leckrone said. “I once decided that ‘Varsity’ should be performed at pre-game and not at half time. I received hundreds of angry letters. I started re-evaluating what ‘Varsity’ meant to the people of Wisconsin, the fans and the alumni. I decided it worked just fine.”
Leckrone has made many memories over 50 years but he says one stands out above the rest.
“My first trip to the Rose Bowl is the highlight of my career,” Leckrone said. “It was an amazing time. That 1993-94 season was just unbelievable. The way the people responded to it and the support they had for the band is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. We marched in the Rose Parade and spent five days in Pasadena. It was a glorious time. I’ve been to six Rose Bowls, but there’s never anything like the first one.”
There have been some tough times for Leckrone, too. He lost his wife Phyllis two years ago. They were married 62 years and have five children and six grandchildren. Leckrone underwent double bypass heart surgery in 2017.
He says he’s feeling vigorous and hopeful as he starts this new chapter in his life.
Leckrone plans to stay in Madison after he retires. UW-Madison granted Leckrone, who never took a sabbatical in his 50 years working for the university, a paid leave next academic year. Leckrone plans to spend part of it archiving his work with the Mills Music Library.
As he prepares to say goodbye, Leckrone says he’s overwhelmed with gratitude.
“At a moment like this, your life flashes before your eyes,” Leckrone said. “Every day, someone comes up to me to say thank you and to share memories of the band. I don’t like to think about my legacy. That’s a big word, but when people remember my time with the band, I hope there’s a thought of excellence. There was always a search for excellence. These kids worked their hearts out for me, and we sure had fun.”
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