Forty-five years ago, in 1972, the Laramie High School marching band won two world championships during a tour through Europe. But they wouldn’t have done it without the discipline and organization instilled in them by their band director Jay Schaefer, band members said.
To fund the European tour, each member of the band had to raise about $800 — the equivalent of $5,000 today. Many got jobs to pay for the trip and the students raised more than $7,000 and parents raised $8,000. The mayor at the time, Vern Shelton, sponsored a campaign drive raising more than $3,000 for the band, former band member Greg Helm said.
“Back in the ’70s, that was a chunk of change,” he said. “Whatever shortfalls we had, the businesses took care of to make certain that we made it over there.”
Helm said the band first flew into Brussels, Belgium. The members were expecting some time to rest but Schaefer had other things in mind for them instead.
“We were supposed to have a day off,” he said. “We landed in Brussels, Belgium, and we were supposed to have the next day because you lose a day and the jet-lag and everything … well that didn’t happen because we had to be on the bus the next morning heading to Gorinchem, Holland, to another competition that we were totally unaware of.”
Helm said when the band finished the parade, its members were invited to a rehearsal at the city hall. It was at that rehearsal where the band learned Schaefer entered them in an international competition.
“After the parade, Jay came over and said we were invited to a reception at city hall at Gorinchem after the parade,” he said. “One of the Canadian band directors got up — and was speaking in English — and said ‘I would like to thank you all for inviting us to this competition.’ That was the very first time that any of us knew that we were in the middle of a competition.”
After their victory in Holland, former band member Jim Thompson said the band traveled to several other European countries such as Austria and Switzerland, performing concerts on the way to Vienna to compete in a festival to become world champions. When the band arrived in Vienna, they practiced their routine, which went terribly. Other bands that were competing saw the performance and Schaefer became very upset.
“I think that he was so angry he couldn’t even say anything to us because we let him down,” Thompson said. “More importantly, what he would tell us is that we let ourselves down … That’s why he was so upset with us.”
Former band member Warren Peterson said then the band performed its opening performance in front of the Schönbrunn Palace — a former Hapsburg family summer home in Vienna — and performed what Helm said was “one of the best shows we ever out on.” The class they were competing in was not called for an award and the band members were not aware of what was happening until the band was presented with the “Prize of Vienna,” making them the best marching band in the world.
“The thing that really stood out for me was the fact that we, when they were giving out all the awards — if I remember this right, and the class that our band was in — the winner wasn’t announced,” he said. “They didn’t announce a winner and so we nearly didn’t know what was going on, then they announced that we were the world champions of the whole festival, which was pretty exciting.”
Several of the band members said they won the world championships because of what Schaefer did for the band. He would create new and different routines for the band and made sure it was organized and disciplined so everything would go smoothly during competitions, Peterson said.
“We were reminiscing on how disciplined we were — anytime we were in uniform — we were very well organized and … everything we did was exact,” he said. “I know that he was a real genius as far as the stuff he did. Our routines and stuff were very unique. They were new. They weren’t the same thing everyone else was doing. He had a real brilliant mind and, in my opinion, of the things he put together for us to do.”
Schaefer said he is not the reason why the band succeed in its two world championships in 1972. It was the students and a group of parents who provided the band discipline necessary for victory in Holland and Austria.
“I did not instill the discipline,” Schaefer said. “It was a very disciplined group and it was really an honor for me to be part of it, that discipline again came from the high school itself, it came from a group of dedicated parents.”
Helm said he hopes the story of how a band from Wyoming became the world best band, and the documentary he is producing about it will inspire young musicians in Wyoming.
“This was Laramie, Wyoming, a town in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “We went across the world and became world champions.”