A blast from the past

January 19, 2009

By Jim Feehan

Issaquah trumpeter is oldest living Notre Dame marching band alumni

Jack Steidl, 89, plays some notes on a pocket cornet in the living room of his downtown Issaquah home, near a collection of his trumpets. By Greg Farrar.

Jack Steidl, 89, plays some notes on a pocket cornet in the living room of his downtown Issaquah home, near a collection of his trumpets. By Greg Farrar.

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, Jack Steidl took his position alongside the Notre Dame Marching Band. With trumpet in hand, he stood on the same field he did more than 70 years ago. Now 89, the Issaquah man is the oldest living member of the university’s marching band.

But this was no ordinary performance. The alumni band was back home in Indiana to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the university’s fight song, “Notre Dame Victory March.” Members of the classes of 1941 through 2007 returned to campus to celebrate the milestone.“We had a jolly time playing the most famous fight song in college history,” said Steidl, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1941 with a degree in philosophy.

The alumni band performed prior to the Oct. 4 game against Stanford, at halftime and after. It was an occasion for Steidl to see old friends, make new acquaintances and reminisce about all things Notre Dame.

“Band members from other years would come up to me and say, ‘You’re an inspiration to me,’” he said.


What’s with the hat? 

Besides being the oldest member of the alumni band, Steidl is perhaps best known for his nontraditional band headgear. In the early 1990s, Steidl’s niece took a construction workers’ hardhat, glued on a small statue of the Virgin Mary and spray-painted it gold. Steidl wore it during pregame practice sessions, in plain view of the staid band director.

“He pointedly looked away anytime I was in plain sight,” Steidl said. “That was enough for me. I took that as tacit approval, even though I was clearly out of uniform. I didn’t know if I’d catch hell or not.” 

Steidl’s wife, Katie Kaluzny, was in Seattle watching the nationally televised game. The camera zoomed in on the alumni band and its oldest member.

“The announcer was about to say something frivolous and silly about the alumni band,” she said. “He was about to say something, when he stopped and thought about the letters and cards he would receive if he said something crass. This was, after all, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Notre Dame.”

The golden dome hat can now be found at the band building in South Bend, Ind.

Even the band’s entrance had an ethereal quality as they emerged from a tunnel onto the playing field. 

“It gave you goose bumps,” Steidl said.  “After a while, you could see light at the end of the tunnel and wild cheers from the audience.”

The stadium is known for its view of “Touchdown Jesus,” a nickname given to a large mural of the resurrected Jesus, entitled The Word of Life, located on Hesburgh Library. The mural looms over the stadium, mirroring the raised arms of a referee signifying a touchdown.

“There is such a lot of history, mystique and tradition with Notre Dame,” Steidl said.


Falling in love

Steidl grew up in Paris, Ill., about 165 miles south of Chicago. The family had a piano in the house. Steidl didn’t care much for the piano, or the year of violin lessons his parents forced him to take. 

“All I could do is get squeaks out of the violin,” he said. “All I wanted was a gleaming gold trumpet.”

When he was 12, he got his trumpet and fell in love with the instrument.

Steidl’s mother wanted him to attend Notre Dame. A rich uncle left him $5,000 when he was an infant, so paying for college during the Depression was no problem.  

He arrived on campus in 1937 and tried out for the band. 

“The university could only afford 100 uniforms, and 101 people applied,” Steidl said. “To my great relief, I was not the one rejected.”

Back then, the big game of the year was the Notre Dame-Army game in New York’s Yankee Stadium. Hundreds of Irish police officers saluted Steidl and his fellow band members as they marched down Fifth Avenue to the stadium, he said. 

“Shivers ran down my spine,” he said.


Always in the band

In 1940, Steidl tried to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force, but he was rebuffed because he wore eyeglasses. After graduating, he went to work as a meteorologist and as a baggage handler at the South Bend airport. He then went to work as a civilian flight instructor training Army Air Corpsmen in Jackson, Tenn. When he heard the military was looking for pilots, he hopped a train to Nashville to enlist.

When he got to the front, a sergeant stamped his card “inactive” and told him to wait for further notice. He never heard again from the military. He went back to instructing fliers of Stearman biplanes and Fairchild PT-19s. He spent the next 46 years as a pilot and then a flight engineer for United Airlines, retiring in 1990. 

Steidl kept in contact with his alma mater and in the 1980s, Notre Dame invited alumni band members to perform alongside the current marching band.

“There can be no greater thrill in life than to go marching down through the tunnel, drums reverberating and then burst out onto the stadium to the thundering cheers,” he said.

Reach Reporter Jim Feehan at 392-6434, ext. 239, or jfeehan@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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