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Remembering Don Wilcox

Don Wilcox leads the Mountaineer Marching Band at Milan Puskar Stadium 

Don Wilcox leads the Mountaineer Marching Band at Milan Puskar Stadium. 

Don Wilcox, the legendary bandmaster behind the West Virginia University Mountaineer Marching Band, passed away on May 27.

“One of the great pleasures of my career was getting to work with Don Wilcox,” said Keith Jackson, WVU College of Creative Arts dean. “He was a visionary who taught with respect and humanity. His legacy is a beautiful balance of excellence and love.”

Wilcox took the role of WVU Director of Bands in 1971, a position he held for 34 years before retiring in 2005. In those years, Wilcox received numerous awards and recognitions including the WVU Outstanding Teacher Award, the Golden Apple Outstanding Faculty Award, and the Heebink Award for Outstanding Service to the University and the state. He has received special citations from four governors for his contributions to the state of West Virginia and he was awarded the University’s highest honor when he was inducted into the Order of Vandalia in 2008. 

“Mr. Wilcox influenced so many of his students to become band directors and we took with us his traditions, style and lessons,” said Ken Ozzello, director of bands and professor of music at The University of Alabama . “Here at Alabama, if you watch our pregame show, you know there’s a tie to WVU and Mr. Wilcox because, while the components are quite different, the soul and style are the same.”

Ozzello, a member of the Mountaineer Marching band while working toward his Bachelor of Music in music education and a Master of Music in conducting degrees from WVU, can’t quite begin to estimate how wide-reaching Wilcox’s influence may be, but suggests everyone who sits down to watch a middle school, high school or college marching band in the fall will see pieces of his legacy.

“You hear a lot of folks in sports talk about coaching trees and that would be a great way to look at Don Wilcox’s legacy,” Ozzello said. “Every time you see a band on a football field, you’re seeing Don’s influence. In the Southeastern Conference alone, you have three of us, Don’s former students, spreading his teachings.”

Nikki Gross is one of those former students. She is the assistant director of athletic bands at Auburn University and said she first felt Wilcox’s influence as a young child.

In the late 1970s, Gross’ mother took her to a WVU band performance at Shady Spring High School in southern West Virginia.

“I remember watching the band perform on the field through the fence at the stadium,” Gross said. “I told my mom, ‘One day I am going to carry a flag in that band.’ Now, although I never did learn how to spin a flag, I did end up playing saxophone, being the drum major, graduate assistant and assistant director of bands for the ‘Pride of West Virginia.’”

As a member of Wilcox’s band, Gross performed in many run-out performances just like the one she saw as a little girl. Wilcox’s commitment to the West Virginia community is something that will always stick with her. 

“These were not performances the band needed to do, but they were performances that Mr. Wilcox felt were important and impressed upon us our performance at these events was as important as they were on a game day,” Gross said. “Many WVU Band members, myself included, got the chance to go ‘home’ and perform for friends and family. Thinking about the impact it has on the community and the children, it’s hard to put into words.”

Retired WVU College of Creative Arts Associate Dean John Hendricks was a student under Wilcox before joining the faculty and ultimately taking the helm as director of bands when Wilcox retired in 2005.

“I think Don had a vision in his mind for the band’s potential and of course he wanted to make that happen,” Hendricks said. “But it was also about more than just band. It was about life.”

Wilcox’s approach made him everyone’s favorite faculty member and father figure. While the band only had about 100 members when Wilcox started, that number soon started to rise. Wilcox made two changes to help growth: he allowed women to join the marching band for the first time in WVU history and he implemented student leadership.

“Don used his vision as a guiding light for his student leadership,” Hendricks said. “He gave his students the power and confidence to try different strategies, to collaborate and to come to conclusions as a team. It was really motivating for the band and helped evolve their performance quality very quickly. Most bands now have student leadership but I think the WVU approach empowers those students a bit more thanks to Don.”

Ultimately, it was Wilcox’s ability to see his students as individuals with full lives that Hendricks said affected band members most.

“Don loved to teach life skills and tell stories and learn about his student’s interests outside of marching band,” Hendricks said. “He wanted you to enjoy life beyond marching band and make sure you could succeed no matter where you ended up.”

Sometimes for Wilcox, enjoying life meant stopping practice and having everyone turn around to watch the sunset, Hendricks recounted. After a grueling day of marching band practice in the late summer heat, it was just the levity 325 college students needed.

A celebration of life for Wilcox is being planned for the fall in Morgantown. Donations in honor of Wilcox can be made to the Music General Scholarship Fund (2S424) at the WVU Foundation by visiting