The best tuba player in the land


By Pat Haley - Contributing columnist



The leaves were falling from the buckeye trees as the young student trudged past the cold cement football stadium, past the locked gates, and toward a bus headed to his dorm.

Along with the unfamiliar fear of rejection in his mind, he still carried the trumpet he had played a few days earlier for the band director. In the sprinkling rain, he had walked to the bulletin board and looked for his name.

It wasn’t there.

The young scholar was Willard Lane, the place was The Ohio State University, and the year was 1942.

Willard was a talented trumpet player. People told him so. This time in Columbus, he was up against some of the finest in the land. His best that day wasn’t quite good enough.

He had walked another two blocks before the deep majestic and resonant sound — the oompah tone from the brass tuba — filled his ears and then his mind.

Willard had an idea. He hoped he hadn’t run out of time.

He turned around and raced three blocks back to the OSU music building. The professor was still there. “Sir, I didn’t make the cut this year on the trumpet, but is it too late to tryout on the tuba?” he asked.

“Son, it’s never too late to audition for TBDBITL,” he answered with a smile. “Let’s hear what you got.”

The director asked Willard how long he had been playing the tuba.

“This will be my first time,” he responded.

He told the director the fingering was the same, and he felt he could play the gleaming silver instrument now coiled around his neck like an enormous anaconda.

“Play the Buckeye Battle Cry,” he told Willard, as sweat now began stinging the young man’s eyes. The precarious first few notes promptly turned into a steady cadence and tempo.

“As they say in Hollywood, don’t call us. We will call you,” the director said with a chuckle. “Our final posting will be at 9 a.m. tomorrow. You know where the bulletin board is located, I believe.”

Sleep didn’t come easy, and he was up early and walked the couple of miles to the music room instead of taking the bus. The exercise would help calm him down.

He dashed into the lobby of the building and worked his way to the elevator. He studied the list of the new band members and held his breath.

“Ingram, Johnson, Kellogg, Lane …he stopped reading. He had just made the renowned Ohio State Marching Band. As a tuba player.

Willard was a dreamer of sorts, and one of his dreams was to “dot the i” with his tuba at an Ohio State football game. However, the band reserved that honor for senior members only. Willard ran out of time. The military drafted him the following year, and it limited his band years to the 1942 season alone.

Eighty years later, I was sitting in the Faith Lutheran Church with my friend Randy Sarvis, Senior Director of Public Relations for Wilmington College, after the memorial service for Willard Lane.

Bud Lewis, also of Wilmington College, had introduced Willard to Randy, and before long, the three men became fast friends. Randy had authored a brilliant essay about Willard for the Wilmington News Journal a few years ago, and we were discussing his wonderful life.

“As you know, Willard would have been 100 years old next year. He was still in great shape. As recently as earlier this year, Willard proudly would demonstrate he can still do the 160 steps per minute as required of band members,” Randy said.

Randy then shared an idea he had.

“I planned to contact Ohio State’s public relations office to promote 99-year-old Willard as a potential candidate to be honored by dotting the Script Ohio “i” at a game this fall, which would be the 80th anniversary of Paul Brown’s Buckeyes’ national championship, and of the fall when Willard was a member of the OSU marching band.

Randy thought OSU would be interested in giving him that opportunity, albeit 80 years later, as a 99-year-old.

Randy’s pitch to OSU was going to be that Willard was: 1. A band alumnus; 2. A former tuba player who never had the chance to “dot the i”; 3. A WW II veteran; and, 4. A spry, even robust, 99-year-old.

Then fate turned against Willard for one of the few times in his life. Unfortunately, about the time Randy planned to contact OSU, Willard’s health markedly declined, and the illness progressed quickly. His family soon gathered around him to say goodbye.

There have only been a few honorary “i-dotters” in the band’s history: Bob Hope, Woody Hayes, John Glenn and Jack Nicklaus, and possibly Clinton County’s own, Dr. Willard Eugene Lane.

Had he not run out of time.

Pat Haley is a Clinton County native and former county commissioner and sheriff.

His book, “Around the Fire: Stories from Here and There” — comprised of his nonfiction stories in the News Journal through the years — is available through the Clinton County History Center in Wilmington, or you can reach Pat directly at 937-205-7844 or via email at [email protected] to purchase a copy.

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By Pat Haley

Contributing columnist