Band heroes: McClellan Army band members still play with patriotism
by Sherry Kughn
Special to The Star
Jun 30, 2013 | 5087 views |  0 comments | 128 128 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anniston Star file photo
Anniston Star file photo
They came. They saw. They settled.

Several members of the two military bands once stationed at Fort McClellan settled in Calhoun County during their years of service and never left.

Dixie Jensen of Saks played trombone for the 14th Women Army Corps (WAC) Band, which converted over to the 14th Army Band in 1976. Norman Dennis of Oxford and John Risse of Jacksonville played in the band after the conversion. All three have stayed active in the local music scene since their military band folded about 14 years ago.

Jensen, 71, was a trombone player from Griswold, Iowa, when she enlisted. After basic training at Fort McClellan in 1960, officers encouraged her to audition for the band. She spent 16 years of her military service with the WAC Band at Fort McClellan and retired in 1983 at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. She returned to Saks because she had bought a house there.

In 2004, Jensen organized a reunion and concert of WAC Band members, events she now helps plan every other year. The WAC Band was the only all-female army band that existed in the United States.

“It was amazing when we held the first reunion,” said Jensen. “We had such wonderful teamwork, no matter whether we had been in the band during the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s.”

The group will gather for their next reunion in 2014. Jensen said she gets goose bumps just thinking about their performances, where they play their featured numbers, such as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful.”

This year Jensen has also been active in the Calhoun County Community Band. Its Fourth of July concert is Wednesday.

Dennis, 59, also a trombonist, will play guitar in the patriotic concert presented by Parker Memorial Baptist Church Tuesday. Dennis has been involved in some type of musical venture since childhood — he began studying music at age 9, majored in music in college and served briefly as a band director.

The Wichita, Kan., native joined the Army in 1977 and eventually auditioned for the 14th Army Band at McClellan. His band experience took him to Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., and to Germany. After retiring in 1995, he went to work for Hamilton Band Instrument Company before it closed. Now he works for Howard Core at McClellan, a violin company, and plays with a band called pasTime.

Risse, a native of Pennsylvania, is a trumpet player who was stationed with the military band on several bases in addition to Fort McClellan, including Germany, Japan and Fort Meade in Maryland. He served 22 years in the military, two at Fort McClellan, from where he retired in 1996. He chose to settle in Calhoun County, he said, because he and his wife liked their children’s school system in Jacksonville, and they liked the warm weather. Now they enjoy being located between their children who live in Nashville and Birmingham.

After retirement, Risse, now 62, used his GI Bill to obtain a degree in music from Jacksonville State University. He plays his trumpet daily for enjoyment, performing whenever he can find a musical venue that suits him.

All three musicians recall their time in the military band as a great experience.

Jensen remembers marching with the band in President Kennedy’s inaugural parade in January of 1961. They couldn’t play all of the songs they had learned for the occasion, though, because the slides and valves on the horns were frozen, she said. She also had the opportunity to play for President Kennedy when he visited Florida and once in the Rose Bowl Parade.

“The crowds at the parade were big and enthusiastic,” said Jensen, “and none of us fell out during those eight miles of marching and playing.”

Dennis remembers playing in the military band in 1988 when Bob Hope came to Anniston to perform. He also remembers the talent exhibited by many of the band members, some of whom went on to be professional performers.

A highlight of Risse’s career was traveling to Normandy, France, to play atop a cliff above Omaha Beach — the same cliff that U.S. soldiers scaled on D-Day in June 1944. He remembers the morning as overcast and the mood somber.

“When taps sounded,” Risse said, “I had a feeling I’ll never forget.”

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