From Across the Miles (And Years), The ND Alumni Band Gathers Again

Fans attending the Notre Dame-Stanford game no doubt saw them about campus.

Some of them were carrying dented trumpets or weathered clarinets. Some were battling creaky knees when they executed the trademark “hike step.”

They were, of course, the approximately 800 members of the Notre Dame Alumni Band that gathered for Alumni Band Weekend.

Started in the 1980s, Alumni Band Weekend has traditionally been held once every four years. An exception was made in 2008, when the Stanford weekend was also chosen to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Notre Dame Victory March.

Some band alums will have graduated in the 2000s, others more than 60 years ago.

And then there’s “Captain Jack” Steidl, class of 1941. At 91, the retired flight instructor and pilot has come from his home in Issaquah, Washington, to many of the Alumni Band events over the years.

And he made it again for the weekend’s festivities.


Jack is believed to be the oldest living ND Band alum, and the last Band member to march under the leadership of the legendary Band director Joseph Casasanta.

It may be hard to believe, given today’s 360-plus ND Band, but at one point, in the early 1920s, the Band was struggling to survive. Numbers and enthusiasm were low, and performances were limited.

Casasanta, a talented musician and 1923 graduate, changed all that. In the years immediately after graduation, he directed the Band and set it on the path that we recognize today. He attracted new members, improved their musicianship, and raised money for fine new uniforms. Under his direction, the Band started making annual trips to ND road games. He also found time to write a little music.

“Casasanta created some of the most permanent musical icons of the Notre Dame Band,” says Dr. Ken Dye, Notre Dame’s director of bands. “His arrangement of the Victory March is still played today. Notre Dame Our Mother was first performed at Knute Rockne’s funeral (in 1931) and than adopted as the official alma mater of Notre Dame. His other songs — Hike Notre Dame, Down the Line, and The Irish Backs — are played at every game.”

Down the Line has a special link to the playing field, as it was written in tribute to The Seven Mules, the line that blocked for the legendary Four Horsemen in 1922-24.

“He was magnificent…people just loved him,” Jack Steidl said of Casasanta. “He was, in one sense, very much in charge and a little bit intimidating. But he was also a wonderful leader, and supremely likeable and approachable.”

Steidl found out just how approachable early in his Band career.

As a freshman in 1937, Steidl recalls, he was one of 101 applicants for spots in the Band. “The thing is, the University only had 100 uniforms. I was scared to death of being the one left out.”

But he made it, playing the cornet he brought from his home in Paris, Illinois. However, he was soon dissatisfied with playing “third part” and so he went to Casasanta to talk about a possible switch.

“I looked around the room to see which instruments the University supplied, and spotted the smallest one – an alto horn. Like a baritone, but about one-third the size. I said, ‘That’s for me.’ And Casasanta made it easy for me to make the switch.”

By his senior year, Steidl had worked his way up to the first part with the alto. “I was happy,” he said. “I felt I had really achieved something.”

Without a doubt, the highlight of each year (1937-40) was the Band’s annual trip to New York for the Army game.

“For a young 20-year-old from a small town in Illinois, just being in New York City, and then playing at the ‘Game of the Year,’ what a wonderful memory,” Steidl said. “We marched to Yankee Stadium, and I remember looking over and seeing the myriad of Irish cops saluting – we presumed they were Irish –along the streets. That was a thrill.

“Yankee Stadium! Of all things. And the school is paying our room and board at a fancy Manhattan hotel. It was wonderful.”

Steidl also recalls the Band riding the South Shore line to Chicago, for the trip to Evanston to play Northwestern.

Back at Notre Dame for one of the previous Band Alumni games, Steidl made something of a fashion statement. He wore a hard hat painted gold, topped by a miniature statue of Our Lady.

“The Golden Dome…totally out of uniform,” he recalled. “I was in the first row of trumpets, and at first (retired Band director) Jim Phillips studiously avoided looking at me. But then he kind of looked at me and smiled. I guess he approved.” Steidl donated the homemade headgear to the Band, which displays it at the Band building.

These days, Steidl does what he says “old retired Band trumpet players do” – he plays Taps with the VFW Honor Guard at military burials at a nearby national cemetery.

“You have to stand at attention for quite a while, to finally play Taps, which takes 55 seconds. But it’s a way to keep playing, and be of service.”

As anyone who’s listened to the introduction of the Band at a Notre Dame home game knows, the Band has been in existence for 165 and is “America’s First University Band.”

“Our motto is ‘Tradition, Excellence, and Family,’” says current director Dye. “The attendance of senior members is a tribute to the legacy of the Notre Dame Band and serves as a guiding force to preserve the traditions and family atmosphere unique to the Notre Dame Band. Alumni Band is certainly an ‘extended family.’”

And Alumni Band Weekend is much more than musical.

“It is a living manifestation of tradition and family. It is a ‘family reunion’ of stories, music, and friends. It is a gathering of people who love their school and enjoy seeing their closest friends. It is a time to see the marriages and kids that are part of the Notre Dame Band.

“Alumni Weekend becomes a living, performing enactment of the history and legacy of the Notre Dame Band.”

When it comes to the Band of the Fighting Irish, it’s the service, spirit, loyalty, dedication and support of those marching musicians down through the years – like Jack Steidl – who have paved the way for their greats sights and sounds Notre Dame fans enjoy today.