The Carpenters: The Marching 110’s “First Family”

The video above, shot and edited by Alex Hider, Tyler Rosten and Sara Vallone, shows the hard work and dedication that goes into making a halftime show for the Ohio University Marching 110. But how does this translate off the field? For many, it’s the beginning of life-long relationships.

The gloomy glow of fluorescent lights reflects off the gray synthetic floor. A few dozen fans climb the portable aluminum bleachers, an erector set of support beams and tin roof stretching beyond them. It’s hard to tell if this massive complex, the Spire Institute, is a gym or the local Costco.

In front of them, Ohio and Kent State volleyball teams are attempting to clear mid-morning cobwebs in advance of the noon start time of the MAC Tournament’s first round. Fans know this won’t be much of a contest: The top-seeded Bobcats cruised to an easy straight set victory over the Golden Flashes only a week ago.

Ohio volleyball plays in the MAC Tournament at in Spire Institute in 2011. (matchpointohio.com)

Ohio volleyball plays in the MAC Tournament at in Spire Institute in 2011. (matchpointohio.com)

Suddenly, 30 green-shirted, instrument-wielding adults noisily enter the gym. Though most are older than 30, they all carry the goofy grin and the careless swagger of a college sophomore. A few spectators overhear the middle-agers crack a few crass jokes as they assemble their instruments. Finally, some life in the room.

Two of the trombone players, a man and a woman, take a seat next to each other. Both have short, graying hair. Both are wearing glasses. Though they display no outward affection toward each other, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to know they’ve spent over half their life together.

They ready their instruments and begin to play. From the first note of “Stand Up And Cheer,” it’s like they never left the Marching 110.

For most couples, playing trombone in a dimly light northeast Ohio gym in the middle of November doesn’t sound like much of a vacation. But Mike and Jo Carpenter aren’t your typical couple: They’re a band couple.

Growing Up

It’s fitting that the Carpenters have lived in Southeast Ohio their entire lives.

Growing up the daughter of a news reporter in Chillicothe, Jo began playing in the school band in fifth grade like the rest of her family. The youngest of four children, she played clarinet throughout grade school, just like her older brother. But while fooling around before band practice in high school, she discovered her true passion.

“I just picked up a friends trombone and started playing it,” she said. “The trombone just felt right, and it felt more fun.”

Jo knew that she wanted to continue her music career in college, and figured she would continue the family tradition of attending Ohio State. In fact, her brother had played concert band there. But in 1975, when a close friend and former band-mate dragged her to an Ohio football game during her senior year of high school, she quickly changed her mind.

As the Marching 110 broke into their rendition of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” Jo was smitten.

“It was definitely one of those ‘AHA!’ moments,” she said.

The Marching 110 performs earlier this season against Marshall. (Carl Fonticella)

The Marching 110 performs earlier this season against Marshall. (Carl Fonticella)

Mike had a much easier time with his college decision. Growing up in Lancaster, he began playing the trombone in fifth grade and never looked back.

“The goal was…to play in as many things as possible,” he said.

In high school, Mike played as much as he could, whether that meant marching band, jazz band or concert band. However, he was most interested in playing popular music in high school’s dance band. After learning that the Marching 110 played a similar style of music, his high school band director took him to “Varsity Night” in Ohio’s Memorial Auditorium.

That night, the Marching 110 tore down the house with their classic performance of The Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin.”

“I was blown away,” Mike said. “I thought the balcony was going to collapse because of people jumping up and down.”

He went through the motions and applied to a few other schools for his parents’ sake. But from that moment on, Mike knew he would be a member of the Marching 110.

Coming to College

The 1970s were a turbulent time for many young Americans on college campuses. Just five years removed from protests and riots on the campus of Ohio University, Jo found herself in the middle of a revolution of her own.

In 1967, new band director Gene Thrailkill adopted a new style for Ohio University’s marching band: Pop music selections combined with a high-energy marching style. Along with the new style, he also adopted an entirely male band. From 1968 until the mid ‘70s, the band was known as the “110 Marching Men of Ohio,” and no women were permitted.

If it weren’t for Ronald Socciarelli, Mike and Jo Carpenter would have never met. In 1975, he reinstated women into the band in his third year as its director. Jo arrived in Athens in 1976, one of only 12 women in the band and the first female trombone player in the history of the Marching 110.

The Marching 110 performs earlier this season against Austin Peay. (Carl Fonticella)

The Marching 110 performs earlier this season against Austin Peay. (Carl Fonticella)

As big of a step as this was for women’s rights on Ohio University’s campus, Jo put her role with the band first. In an environment where consistency is everything, that meant blending in more than sticking out.

“Our goal was to all look alike and not stand out from anybody else,” she said. “I tried to keep a low profile.”

Blending in meant keeping in uniform, which was a problem for Jo and her waist-long hair. In order to fit in with the rest of the band, all the women were forced to cut their hair so it was off their collars and above their ears.

“It was kind of traumatic for a couple of the women,” she said. “But it’s a given: you come in and you cut your hair. It was like getting your T-shirt and pants from this custom uniforms store; it was just one thing on the list.”

For Jo, it was more an issue of being accepted as a freshman, rather than being accepted as a woman.

“I hoped that just being me was enough, and it was,” she said.

Mike found the same to be true for his experience.

“As an incoming freshman, I didn’t notice the difference between animosity toward men and women and animosity toward freshman,” he said with a chuckle.

As a freshman, Jo was so nervous on the field that she often failed to play a note. Terrified of making a marching error, she would throw up before every on-field performance. Eventually, she figured out how to cope with her nerves.

“I just learned not to eat,” she laughed. “You don’t eat, you don’t lose it.”

However, Jo was always excited to play sit-down shows and concert performances. With no marching routines to memorize, she could focus on playing the music that she loved. She recalled that during her first year in the band, the 110 took a trip to New York City. A young freshman still learning the ropes, she lined up and played at famed concert theater Carnegie Hall.

“That whole trip was probably my best memory overall in the band,” she said. “I mean, who plays at Carnegie Hall?”

Though Mike was still a high school senior at the time of the Carnegie Hall show, he agreed that the concert performances were some of his favorite memories. Shows like Varsity Night and the Ohio Theatre brought him back to the first time he saw the 110 live.

“When you’re on the stage, it was as close as you’ll ever be to being a rock star,” he said.

The closest Mike got to rock star status on the field was a game at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium. Though the home fans weren’t expecting much of a show from their opposing marching band, they sure got one.

“By the time we were only a couple of minutes in, the whole place was standing,” he said.

The Marching 110 performs earlier this season against Central Michigan. (Carl Fonticella)

The Marching 110 performs earlier this season against Central Michigan. (Carl Fonticella)

Falling In Love

As section-mates, Mike and Jo became friends right away. Between sectional rehearsals and band practices, they spent plenty of time together. But once they left the field, they had their own lives.

“He had a different group of friends and I had a different group of friends,” Jo said.

While it may not have been love at first sight, Mike and Jo’s early friendship laid the foundation for a relationship that would stand the test of time.

“I think that had a lot to do with where we were in life and school,” Mike said. “[At the time], we weren’t really thinking about [marriage].”

Though Jo had dropped out of school during her senior year and without earning her zoology degree, she continued to march in the band. Many of her friends had moved away, and she began making friends with the younger band members. Mike made friends with the same group. Being the most senior members of the trombone section, the two began spending much more time together away from the field.

“We would go to bars and start dancing together,” Jo said. “Then we started doing stuff together, just the two of us.”

By the spring of 1981, the two were officially dating.

“My first recollection was going to the movies and standing in line at [The Athena],” Mike said. “A couple of people from the section walked by and just assumed we were dating. In the pre-Internet age, it just spread like wildfire.”

After graduating with a degree in music education, Mike decided to stick around as a graduate assistant and work on his master’s degree in music. Jo, who was still living in Athens at the time, stayed closely involved with the band as well. As a result, undergraduates began referring to the couple as “Mom and Dad.”

It didn’t take long for Mike to realize that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with Jo. On Christmas day in 1981, he proposed to Jo. She said yes. Mike never second-guessed himself.

“It felt right,” he said. “As much of other aspects of my life where I’ve hemmed and hawed, I just knew.”

“There’s certain things you have to have in common: Politics, a sense of humor…you just know stuff a lot of people just wouldn’t get,” Jo said.

Mike and Jo were engaged for only six months. On June 19, 1982, only a year after they started dating, they were married in Jo’s hometown of Chillicothe. With band members by their sides as best man and bridesmaids, Mike and Jo said their vows in front of friends and family, many who had helped make the wedding a success.

“We were in grad school, so there wasn’t a lot of money,” Mike said.

People did whatever they could to help. Friends made Jo’s dress. Aunts and uncles supplied food, invitations and thank yous. Other guests provided other necessities as gifts. With guests dining on paper plates, the reception had a very distinctive college feel.

After their honeymoon to Knoxville’s World’s Fair, Mike and Jo found themselves in the same adjustment period all newly weds face. With the marching season quickly approaching, Mike was preparing for his second season as a grad assistant, and the young couple needed to learn how to communicate with his busy schedule. In a world without cell phones, it was difficult.

“He has time issues,” Jo said.

Spending late nights on campus, entrenched in his work and music studies, Mike would often forget to phone home and inform Jo that he would be late.

“I didn’t really care where he was, I just wanted to know he was OK,” she said.

“It’s not that I’ve learned, it’s just easier now,” Mike joked.

Once the season ended, it was the complete opposite. Now, instead of being gone all hours of the night, Mike had plenty of time to spend at home over a six-week winter break; sometimes, too much time.

“There’s always an adjustment of time or space in the house, but ours was delayed,” he said. “That’s why maybe it was a little bit magnified.”

Staying Involved

While the Marching 110 may have put a slight strain on the first year of their marriage, it has been the glue that has bonded it in the years since graduation. Though Mike fell into a career in personal finance and Jo followed her passion for animals by starting a pet-sitting and grooming service, the band has always been a central part of the couple’s lives.

Being in Athens, the Carpenters have taken it upon themselves to be unofficial ambassadors for the rest of the Marching 110 alumni. Whether that means hosting a house full of out-of -towners on Homecoming, or providing meals to freshman band members, the couple is constantly doing what they can to help out.

“We’ve always kind of taken it upon ourselves to help people realize that it’s supposed to be fun,” Mike said.

The Ohio University Alumni Band performs on Homecoming earlier this season. (Carl Fonticella)

The Ohio University Alumni Band performs on Homecoming earlier this season. (Carl Fonticella)

Perhaps nothing was more meaningful to Mike than helping to organize last season’s Homecoming show. The show was dedicated in honor of Socciarelli, who had passed away earlier that year. With over 500 of his former band members in attendance, it was the largest performance in the history of the Marching 110 Alumni Band.

“He was almost like a another parent to us,” Jo said. “I don’t think [people] really fully understood the Socciarelli generations connection with him until last year.”

“Until that homecoming last year, I don’t think the kids in the band really understood it either,” Mike said.

For many years, the only opportunity Mike and Jo had to play was once a year on Homecoming. But eight years ago, former Ohio volleyball coach Geoff Carlston approached a few 110 alumni about forming a pep band to play at the team’s home games. What formed was the Ohio Varsity Alumni Band, a group that has kept Mike and Jo busy during the fall season.

Through the Varsity Alumni Band, Mike and Jo have developed a special relationship with many band members they had never met.

“I’ve never been a part of another group like this ever,” Jo said. “It’s just hard to explain. I just call it my second family.”

Because they are some of the oldest members of the band, the couple has learned that for new members of the Varsity Alumni Band, there is a bit of an adjustment period, especially for new alumni. Even though Mike and Jo had three children of her own, they still refer to the young members of the Alumni Varsity Band as their “children.”

“They’re used to do doing what they’ve always done in the band. They’re not used to doing it in front of their parents,” he said with a chuckle. “It takes some adjustment on their part to learn we’ve been there and done that.”

“There’s nothing they can do to shock us,” said Jo slyly.

The 34 members of the Varsity Alumni Band are gathered at a long table at a restaurant in northeast Ohio. The volleyball team has just swept every set of the MAC Tournament and is headed to the NCAA Tournament. It may be the season-ending banquet, but there is still at least one more game to play.

The band members are joking loudly and drinking heavily. Many traveled four or five hours to be there, so they might as well enjoy themselves. Some are as young as their mid twenties, some as old as their late fifties, but all are behaving like college students. Many did not know each other well before this weekend, but it took just three short days to slide back into their college ways.

(Carl Fonticella)

(Carl Fonticella)

Today is Jo Carpenter’s 56th birthday. After the rest of the banquet traditions were finished and happy birthday had been sung, the rest of the band members clamor for her to give a speech. Jo stood up, and attempted to coolly say a few words in what is an inherently awkward situation.

“I know this sounds kind of lame and pathetic, but this is one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had,” she says sincerely.

The rest of the band members laugh. Really? A trip to Geneva, Ohio for a women’s college volleyball game is the best birthday you’ve ever had?

“Wow Mike. You didn’t set the bar too high,” they say with a laugh.

Jo smiles at her husband of 31 years. She knows that, in reality, the bar is as high as it’s ever been.

Mike and Jo have been with the Marching 110 longer than they’ve been with each other. But without it, they wouldn’t be family.

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