MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) – Every band has a leader....but none quite like Mike. Mike Leckrone has led the Badger Band for 50 years. He decided to retire next spring, so Saturday's Minnesota game will be the last time Leckrone leads the band at Camp Randall. In this interview with NBC15's John Stofflet, Leckrone looks back on his half century career at "The Camp".
Mike Leckrone and the UW Marching Band at the 2011 Nebraska game at Camp Randall.
Stofflet: "The university put out that the only person who's been on the sidelines longer than you at Camp Randall is Bucky Badger.
Leckrone: " I've heard that." (Big laugh). "And I think he might have had a few different heads since I got there." Stofflet: "I think so...you still have your original!"
Stofflet: "What's going through your mind?
Mike Leckrone: "Well, it's a lot of mixed emotions, as you might imagine. I mean, I'm anxious to get to it and get everything done, and it's part of the season for us, so the season always has an uplift at the end of the season, there's always that finality to it. But there's a certain sadness to it because I know that it's going to be my last time around and it's very bittersweet."
Sharing the news of his retirement with his beloved band members back in August wasn't easy. In a YouTube video the university posted in August, Leckrone breaks down as he tells the band he's retiring.
Leckrone: "It was difficult because I'm saying goodbye to people I've known for 4-plus years...plus freshmen who don't know me very well. It was the sort of thing where I suddenly realized that it was going to be over...and that I'd better enjoy every moment of every day that was going to be there, because it's just not gonna happen again. It was sad, but at the same time, it was a sense of relief that I had made the announcement...and very honestly, one of the things I wanted to do was come out and stop (leading the band) before someone said, 'Mike, you'd better stop, it's time for you to quit.''
Stofflet: "You talk often to your band members about finding 'moments of happiness'. Care to share one of yours from over the years?"
Leckrone: "Rose Bowl. That first Rose Bowl we went to. I don't even need to stop and think about it because it was so momentous in terms of everything that we did. And frankly, I'd been at the university for 25 years and I thought at that point, any chance at a Rose Bowl is long since passed. But suddenly it was there. I've been there five other times...and it was great, but nothing like that first time."
Stofflet: "Yeah, because we remember the times people would jokingly yell 'Rose Bowl!' 'Rose Bowl!', if you won a game.
Leckrone: (Laughs) "Yeah, that's right."
The toughest thing during the 50 years, losing his wife Phyllis last year. They dated since 7Th grade, and were married 62 years.
Stofflet: "How big a part of your life was Phyllis during all of this?"
Leckrone: "It's.... it's indescribable...and there's not a day goes by that I don't think about her. I hope that she's proud still of what we're trying to do. She was such a Badger fan to begin with,...and I think she liked being a Badger better than she liked being the wife of the band director....cuz she just loved that whole thing. It's something that you don't get over...and I don't plan to ever do it. She was a very important part because she raised the kids and she wanted me to be free to do whatever I wanted to do with the band, and she never said it exactly in those words, but I felt it all the time, and it was a very important part."
Fighting back tears in that YouTube video, describing his relationship with Phyllis, Leckrone told the young band members, "I wish to each of you that you have that kind of relationship in your life--I hope that you do"
Band members will tell you that Mike has taught them lots of life lessons..been like a father to them. For those who marched for Mike, this final season is also bittersweet.
Stofflet: "In September, I was sitting in the upper deck and I thought it was so powerful that on alumni band day there were more than 500 alums who came back to march because they knew it was your last year."
Leckrone: "Well, you know, you hear the phrase your life passes in front of you? Well it did that day, and in person. I was seeing these kids in the band--and I call them kids, now some of them are already retired--but there were people in the band who were in my very FIRST band and I could see that. I could remember the way they were in those days and they had all changed, but still had that same attitude, which I think we try to get with the band. It's been the reason I've been there all this time."
Stofflet: "What are you going to miss the most?"
Leckrone: "The kids. The kids in the band. They make every day an adventure. Every day is an adventure for what they have done, and what they continue to do. They're mischievous, they're fun-loving, they love the band, they love the university. That's going to be sorely missed. If there's a legacy to be left, I hope it's that some of these kids pick up some of the lessons that I was trying to teach and they pass it on to their next generation and the generation after that."
After the emotional session telling the band members he was retiring, Mike asked that they all sing the time honored "Varsity" together.
Stofflet: "Saturday, you will lead 'Varsity' for the last time in Camp Randall..and that one gets everybody on a regular last home game of the year. What do you think that's gonna feel like, to do that one last time?"
Leckrone: "I've thought about that..I've thought about what it's going to be like. If I don't get teared up, I'll be surprised...because even thinking about it it's a difficult time...I know even the last home game I started thinking about it--I've only got one last chance, there was an emotion that I hadn't felt before."
"Stofflet "That song, and you are so ingrained in this university, Mike, and uh, I thank you. Gosh, you've meant so much to so many people over the years."
Leckrone: "Well, that's nice of you to say. And it's meant a lot to me and my family...over the years too."
Stofflet: "It is going to be strange to look down on that field and see Bucky Badger and not you."
Mike: "I'll miss it. Believe me."