Corps of Cadets
End of an era
by Bonnie Evangelista '08
Photo by Mike Diersing
After 23 years directing the Highty-Tighties,
Lt. Col. George McNeill retired at the end of the spring semester.
To understand the impact that retiring Highty-Tighties director Lt. Col. George McNeill has had on the regimental band, consider his love for music and his endless devotion to inspiring others through music.
After growing up in Baltimore, where he learned to play the tuba, McNeill landed a spot as a marching Spartan at Norfolk State University. He then joined the U.S. Army Service Band, in which he served for 22 years.
His son, Marvin (music '94), then a student at Virginia Tech, introduced his father to the Highty-Tighties. After first serving as the assistant band director under then-director Wally Easter, McNeill took the lead.
McNeill's commitment to the Highty-Tighties never waned, despite the early challenges. "We didn't have a lot of experienced players," he said. In the early 1990s, although band members took great pride in their marching, their interest in progressing musically was wanting, and some members were not as proficient as McNeill had hoped. To rectify the situation, McNeill committed himself to raising the band's musicianship; his emphasis on the recruitment and retention of skilled musicians would become the hallmark of his legacy as director.
First, McNeill asked the Highty-Tighties Alumni Board of Directors to raise money to provide scholarships to all freshman members of the band. He began holding auditions to gauge the abilities of all prospective cadets. McNeill's efforts inspired band members to start other initiatives, including calling prospective high school musicians and staffing the summer orientation tables to speak with incoming cadets. Indeed, many alumni who played under McNeill admit that they had had no interest in joining the band until they heard the question "Do you play an instrument?" during orientation.
These efforts worked. The Highty-Tighties have grown from 60-70 to more than 150. McNeill had always said that he would march a 12-by-12 block on the field before his time as director was up—but he now believes the band can grow to 200 members.
In addition, McNeill's love for jazz brought new energy to the Southern Colonels, the Highty-Tighties' jazz ensemble that now performs for university and private events. And other music groups have emerged as proof of the type of talent being recruited: Caroling by the brass quintet has become a campus tradition.
McNeill spent a great deal of time working with bandsmen individually, helping them developing musically and professionally. "I'm proud," he said, "of all the kids that came through, that I had a part of that."
For band alumni, the past 23 years are defined by McNeill's dedication to developing the Highty-Tighties into a first-class musical organization. Few people are revered as legends, but in the eyes of his band members, McNeill earned the title long ago.