Give It a Twirl

Former drum major Glenn Opie spins a few tales about his days as the leader of the Wildcat marching band.

by Elizabeth Weingarten

Video: Homecoming Twirler Glenn Opie — Former Wildcat drum major Glenn Opie thrilled the 2009 Northwestern Homecoming crowd with his performance. See more video of Opie's performance.

After 60 years Glenn Opie still has the moves.

The 83-year-old Northwestern alumnus and former drum major for the Northwestern University "Wildcat" Marching Band thrilled the crowd with his twirling during pregame and halftime of the Wildcats' thrilling 29-28 comeback victory over Indiana University on Homecoming, Oct. 24.

Opie (WCAS50), who came to Northwestern after serving as a radio operator aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer in the southwest Pacific during World War II, led the marching band when the Wildcats went to the 1949 Rose Bowl. He brought his original Rose Bowl twirling baton when he returned to Ryan Field in October and performed an energetic ad-libbed performance with the Northwestern University Marching and Band Alumni during Homecoming.

Afterward he was approached by "several hundred football fans," admirers who wanted to pose for a photo with him or ask for his autograph. Mostly fans wanted to know about the man with the baton.

Opie, who runs seven miles several times a week and still practices law full time in his hometown of Great Bend, Kan., was happy to talk about his life. He's a man of many stories: "If you live long enough, and this is just by happenstance, you have a lot of adventures," he says. Here he tells Northwestern magazine about his days as a Wildcat:

When did you join the Northwestern band?

Glenn Opie: In 1947, as a sophomore. The late Glen Cliffe Bainum appointed me drum major for three years. He auditioned me for clarinet but said he thought I would do the band less damage as its drum major.

N: What are some of your favorite band memories?

GO: In the 1949 Homecoming parade, I wanted to use a fire baton, but I didn't have the money to buy one. A Phi Delta Theta fraternity brother of mine, a chemistry major, got the idea of taking my Rose Bowl baton, putting a tennis ball on one end, wrapping the ball on the other end with cotton, then soaking each end in some kind of acid solution, which burned a bright green when lit. Midway in the parade down Sheridan Road, he ignited the baton and tossed it to me from the side of the parade route. The surprise fire "got my attention," as did the stinging acid drops flying from the flaming baton. I could think of nothing to do but to frantically grab the blazing baton and twirl it as fast as I could. Centrifugal force worked — and the crowd went nuts. Only problem was a few acid and burn holes in my pants. 

Glenn Opie in 1949

Can you tell us about your journey home from the Rose Bowl in January 1949?

GO: We were marooned for four days in Cheyenne, Wyo., during what we were told was the "blizzard of the century." The railroads had half a dozen trains going back to the East Coast, a lot of them were spectators from the Rose Bowl. We pulled into the railroad yard — there must've been three or four other trains there. The snow subsided only enough for people to get out and do a little something. In the beginning people were out foraging for food.

We had food on our train. We were sitting in the train diner side by side, and we could look over and see the other trains. Some people had their noses pressed against the windows watching us eat. Everyone else was starving.

Some kids would leave the trains and go over in some of the theaters there in Cheyenne. They would play their instruments and put on amateur shows, ad-lib skits and all that stuff. That went on for two or three days. There were a lot of skits and fun and probably a little romance, too.

What happened when you got back to Northwestern?

GO: When we got back, we'd been out of school for four days. I had to go in and see a crusty old guy by the name of Professor James William Buchanan. He was an icon in the zoology area of the school curriculum; he was an old man about ready for retirement [Opie was a zoology and chemistry double major]. I had to go into Professor Buchanan's office. I didn't think he was paying any attention when I said, ‘Professor Buchanan, I'm asking for permission to be readmitted back into class.' I told him all about the blizzard and the Rose Bowl and so forth.

All of a sudden, he whirls around in his swivel chair and bangs his first on the desk and just glares at me. I thought he was going to execute me in my tracks. He said, ‘Opie, will you tell me the truth if I ask you a question?' He said, ‘Is it true that you ran out of whiskey in Cheyenne?' I didn't know what to say, so I said, ‘Yes, sir.' He said, ‘Good god man, you've suffered enough. You go back to class.'

Glenn Opie at Homecoming

Did you have fun out there on the field during Homecoming? How did it feel to be back?

GO: Given the cold, wet weather at the pep rally Friday night, I wasn't sure the Northwestern alumni band would even appear at the game Saturday. But by game time Saturday the sun was breaking through, and the constant roar of the crowd again brought back the Rose Bowl memory — giddiness and euphoria. It was huge fun, mega-exciting — the crowd was so generous and responsive. It was a very humbling experience.

Are you married? Do you have kids?

GO: Yes, my wife, Sandra, also works full time. She is an American Society of Interior Designers-certified interior designer. We have two adult sons, three grandsons and a granddaughter.

Any plans to retire?

GO: Not until the good Lord retires me.

Elizabeth Weingarten is a Medill School of Journalism senior from the Chicago suburbs.

Homecoming 2009 photo by Stephen J. Carrera.