‘Grandpa Dick’ band’s No. 1 fan
Photographs by Dan Addison
|Dick Coleman is the sole volunteer for the 200-plus-member Marching Band, seen below performing during halftime at the Oct. 15 game in which the Cavaliers beat Florida State, 26-21.
By Ashley Edmonds
On a breezy autumn afternoon at Carr’s Hill Field, the marching band prepares for practice. Drummers rehearse on picnic tables, their drumsticks tapping in unison. Tuba players haul out their enormous instrument cases. Chatter, laughter and music ring through the air.
Quietly, a mini-John Deere tractor carrying orange water jugs appears, as if by magic, with a blue-and-orange clad driver. His name is Dick Coleman. He’s 70, and he’s the adopted grandfather of the University of Virginia Marching Band.
Coleman, or “Grandpa Dick,” as he is affectionately called by the band members, has become a fixture in the short time of the band’s existence, said band director William Pease. “His presence around the band is like your favorite pillow or blanket you can’t sleep without,” he said. “You can’t help but smile when you see him, even when things are not going as well as you would like.”
Coleman, the only volunteer for the band, which has more than 200 members, is present at every band practice and home game. At practices, he sets up the drinking water for the thirsty brass, woodwind and percussion players and helps the members get their instruments unloaded and set up. He has become an integral cog in the well-oiled machine that is the marching band – featured musical entertainment at all home Cavaliers football games since 2004.
Coleman, a retired anesthesiologist, volunteers more than 30 hours a week during football season. On game days, he is a flurry of activity, helping to make sure that all band members are fed and ready for the game.
“Anything that’s not ready, he gets ready,” said second-year piccolo player Amanda Smith. “He’s really devoted.”
Inducted by the band as an honorary member of the U.Va. chapter of the National Honorary Band Fraternity, Kappa Kappa Psi, Coleman counts himself lucky to spend time with the band. When told of Pease’s comment that they “couldn’t imagine practice without him there,” he smiled humbly and said, “Well, by the flip of the coin, I couldn’t imagine my life without them.”
Coleman retired to Smith Mountain Lake in 1995. Eight years later, unhappy with his solitary life, Coleman decided to take the advice of Katherine Graham, whose autobiography he had just read. In it, she wrote, “Left alone, no matter at what age, or what the circumstances, you must remake your life.”
Coleman decided to ‘remake’ his life in Charlottesville because of his love of sports, culture, university life and the desire to be around young people. “I didn’t want to follow my parents to Florida and retire,” he said.
He sold his house at Smith Mountain Lake and came to Charlottesville in 2003. By chance, while perusing the newspaper for places to live, he ran across an article about the start of the U.Va. marching band.
Coleman was already a fan of marching bands after spending 25 years in Nebraska watching the University of Nebraska’s band play at Cornhusker football games. He also attends the National Drum and Bugle Corps Contest, held at various pro stadiums around the country every summer.
One day, he walked to the U.Va. sports information office and asked where the new band office was located. When he found it, he also found Tiffany Hornberger, the band’s office coordinator, and asked her what he could do to help.
“I don’t know anything about reading music or how marching bands work, but I would like to volunteer, I told her,” said Coleman. “I needed something, I needed structure — something where people could count on me. I needed to be trusted and loyal to something.”
By his own account, during his first year of volunteering he didn’t do much — just “listened intently to Bill Pease” — as he figured out what he could do to help. “Initially, all I did was go to U-Hall on Sundays after football games and pair the spats that go on the band member’s shoes.
It would take over three hours, but it needed to be done,” he said.
On game days, he noticed that Hornberger had to order food from a caterer for the band, arrange for equipment to be moved from U-Hall to Scott Stadium and make sure everything was set up. It added up to an enormous undertaking. Coleman started helping out here and there, and as football season went on, he learned more and more about what the band needed.
“Any menial job that would make these kids happier,” Coleman said he would (and does) do. “These kids are so appreciative of what you do for them. I can’t tell you how often they tell me how much my help means to them. It is a godsend, Coleman said, of coming to Charlottesville “to work with Bill Pease and these fine kids.”
In addition to helping with practice and game days, Coleman is a source of constant emotional and moral support for the band members.
He purchased luggage tags so the band members could label their instrument cases. He reassures parents of band members that he is there if their kids ever need help — he can easily stop by to check on them or drive them to doctor’s appointments — whatever they may need.
“Where do I begin…he’s so helpful, so supportive of the band,” said second-year tuba player Max Hall. “It really is like having a grandfather around.”
Coleman is no stranger to volunteer work. He has worked for Habitat for Humanity and also spent a year as a missionary in rural India working with the poor and underprivileged. “That was a delight,” he said. “You learn to appreciate what we have here in the U.S.”
Though he doubts he will ever learn how to play an instrument — “Not at my age,” he joked — the band members have been teaching him about keeping time with the music.
His love for the band in particular and U.Va. students in general is evident from the moment he begins talking about them. He finds his experiences with them refreshing considering the stereotype of University students as a “wine and cheese” crowd. “I find that to be just the opposite,” said Coleman, “The students are very wholesome, bright people.
Coleman, a native of New York, has a son and a daughter, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He knows his kids worry about him and all of the hard work that he is doing, but says they know how contented he is working with the band.
He smiled, shrugged and said, “I look forward to every single day that this band is practicing.”