The music man at UW-Madison retires after 50 years

Leckrone brought long-lasting traditions to the Badger band

Casey Anderson , Staff Writer

The roars are deafening. A sea of red and white cheers avidly, all eyes on the field. Bright, beaming lights shine down onto Camp Randall as the UW Marching Band finishes a long, rewarding show. A wide, cheeky grin spreads across his face. The fans aren’t just cheering for the band, but for 50 years of Mike Leckrone.

Leckrone, 82, has been the UW Band director for 50 years. He is the creator of the 5th quarter, a tradition to dance and sing along to well-known songs with the band after Badger football games. He is the creator of the Marching Band’s famously unique “stop at the top” marching style, which gives marching a whole new meaning. And of course, he is the creator of a lifetime of memories, both for band members and Badger fans in the stadium.

“I don’t want music to be just a job,” Leckrone said.

When Leckrone got the job of UW Band Director, he made changes that even today, make UW Band stick out from the rest. The high step was the most physical change.

“The high step in the ’40s and ’50s was the Big Ten style. But two or three things bothered me. I felt the energy level wasn’t what I saw it to be – I wanted to make it unique.”

Leckrone changed the style by adding a toe point, sharper movements, and a noticeable hesitation at the top.

“‘Stop at the top’ caught people’s ears.”

Despite all of the unique changes Leckrone made 50 years ago, Leckrone also encourages tradition – the band is full of many traditions which can throw freshman for a spin. There are traditions, sayings, chants, songs, celebrations, and movements the freshman must learn quickly in order to not fall behind.

These traditions have stood the test of time throughout decades, and continue on through each group of new students.

But Leckrone never anticipated any of this happening. Leckrone started out as the assistant band director at Butler, only applying for the job at UW “because it was open. Simple as that.”

Leckrone elaborates that he always enjoyed music, beginning to learn the trumpet in fifth grade, and in college even considered playing professionally, but opted not to, as he didn’t want his passion to become a chore. Leckrone says his father was a big influence on his love for music, but also pushed for him to consider other options and explore choices.

“I was sincerely thinking about becoming a basketball coach…I saw myself as a chemical engineer at one point,” he said.

Leckrone’s father was a high school band director and inspired him to strive to be a band director also, but his father implored him to explore other choices. Leckrone stresses that his father really wanted him to explore all of his options, but after some time, he knew it was right for him.

Leckrone’s father didn’t just inspire the musical side of him but also the dramatic side.

“My father loved to put on shows,” Leckrone shares, saying that at the young age of 14, he began to realize people enjoyed watching not just music, but drama.

“If you say you’re doing a show, you better do a show!” Leckrone exclaimed.

And he certainly does. One can find Leckrone in a glitzy, dazzling, eye-catching sequin suit before a concert paired with a cheeky smile. During the UW Spring concert, you may even have to look up to the ceiling of the Kohl Center to find Leckrone, as he may just be suspended in the air in a harness, sailing above you. He certainly doesn’t let the crowd get bored.

“You gotta find ways to make ‘em laugh…and think ‘how are you gonna top it next time?” said Leckrone.

Leckrone is also known for talking about “moments of happiness.” He shares his favorite memory was going to the Rose Bowl in 1993, the first time Wisconsin went.

“I had been at Wisconsin for 25 years and thought it was never gonna happen and when it did, it was a moment I will never forget,” said Leckrone.

Although he shares this as a rewarding memory, he also elaborates that “I’ve got so many.”

Leckrone is notorious for speaking to the band about the importance of finding small moments of joy and celebration in life and makes sure to treasure his moments.

When asked what he will miss most after he steps down, Leckrone, without hesitation, answers, “you guys.”

“I always have the most fun with the band, even with the annoyances they present,” Leckrone chuckles “I enjoy seeing you guys grow…from wide eyed freshman to seniors.”

Leckrone then goes on to speak about how important the people are in any group.

“It is really all about the people you’re with that makes something special,” he said.

And after an incredible and memorable 50 years, Leckrone offers some honest advice to aspiring musicians or directors. Leckrone, although he doesn’t like to admit it, has made not only wonderful memories amongst Badger fans, but history. He has created a band that is more like a family than an organization, and enough moments of happiness to last a lifetime.

“Don’t get discouraged when they say it’s not going to be a good direction when you know it will be,” Leckrone said.