By Sally Ann Shurmur
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — Summer is an emotional season for Ruth Anne Atnip and Gabe Gallegos.
They’re separated by years — Atnip is 72, Gallegos is 21 — and distance — she is from Casper, he lives in Grand Junction, Colorado. But they are bonded by three words — honor, loyalty, dedication.
Both are members of a select but mighty group, less than 6,000 total, who marched in the Long Blue Line from its founding by Jim Jones in November 1957 through this, the 60th anniversary year. Both want to be forever remembered as members of the Troopers Drum & Bugle Corps — an elite squad of brass and percussion musicians, along with a color guard.
Gallegos is the Troopers’ drum major, his fourth year in the position. The group’s military-style uniforms, hearkening back to the 11th Ohio Cavalry for which the Troopers are named, set the corps apart from others in Drum Corps International. So does Gallegos’ measured, slow retreat, sword holstered, boots spurred, once the corps has finished a performance.
“This is how it has always been done. This is the identity of the Troopers. This a really clear way to bring eyes to the Troopers,” he said.
Gallegos represents the modern incarnation of the troopers. Atnip was there at the beginning.
She was Ruth Anne Smith in September 1957. Atnip was 11 years old and a student at Willard Elementary School. She was also a drummer, just like her father, Pat, who kept time for Lawrence Welk.
“There was an all-city band and orchestra concert in April of 1957 at Dean Morgan Junior High,” she remembers. “After the concert, Mr. Jones came up and told me about a dream of his to have a youth drum and bugle corps, and asked me to talk to my parents and see if I’d like to audition in the fall.”
She did and she did.
“I don’t remember being frightened or anything at the audition,” she said. “Mr. Jones was warm and welcoming and really like a second father to all of us.”
There were 54 Casper kids in that first corps. This year’s corps is 150, the Drum Corps International limit, from 25 states and three countries (Japan, Netherlands and Canada.)
Atnip performed in the Troopers from 1957 through 1966. During that time, she attended East Junior High, Natrona County High School and Casper College. The Troopers were all local during each of those years except the last, when “import” Rod Voth would come to join the Troopers as the first out-of-state member.
Because of his Troopers’ experience, Voth made his home in Casper and has been an active alumni member, as has Atnip.
Atnip remembers only two times drawing the wrath of Jones, who was known for a gruff exterior, but also was kind and caring.
“I was a little bit off line in drill, and he came by and rapped me on the rump with a drumstick,” she said. “It broke my heart because I thought he had lost faith in me. And then one time, just once in a contest, I dropped a stick and that was a tenth of a point deduction. I just didn’t want to disappoint him anymore so I never dropped it again.”
By 1961, the corps was traveling beyond American Legion conventions in Wyoming and Colorado. It made its first appearance at a national competition in 1961 in Dallas.
Atnip graduated from high school in 1964 and stayed in Casper to study nursing at Casper College. Before the Troopers, she thought she would go the University of Wyoming, but you had to be in Casper year-round if you wanted to be a Trooper, and that quickly became the priority in her life.
“The eight snare drummers had to sound like one, and that took constant practice,” she said.
The traveling was never daunting for the teenager Smith.
“I knew I loved what I was doing, and the corps was our family,” she said. “I never got homesick, and think of the things a bunch of kids from Casper got to do.”
In just a few years, she made a lifetime of memories: a free piano concert in Central Park, marching in the Portland Rose Festival Parade, playing in the ocean and meeting Jimmy Stewart while he was filming a movie in Wyoming.
In 1966, Atnip’s final year, the corps won the VFW National Competition in Jersey City, New Jersey with a score of 90.45.
When the buses bringing the Troopers home hit the state line, they were welcomed by the governor and escorted by the highway patrol. The Troopers drove straight to Natrona County High School, where they were welcomed back and age-outs like Atnip were honored. The plaque she was given that night, along with her Troopers Hall of Fame plaque from her induction in the inaugural class in 2011, are among her prized possessions.
Ask about three words — honor, loyalty and dedication — and the waterworks begin.
“It was and still is such an honor to be part of the Long Blue Line,” Atnip said. “We were in awe that we had that privilege. We are the Wyoming musical ambassadors, we are America’s corps, we are still revered throughout the country. That’s the honor part.”
“Loyalty — other people in the Troopers just walked away and I don’t know how they did that. When I am in town and the Troopers are here (or in Douglas), that is where I am. Last summer, when they came home to march in the Central Wyoming Parade, I marched that damn parade route right along with them. I was on the sidewalk, but I was marching in step and crying the entire way.”
Even now, at rehearsal on a hot June morning, when the Troopers play “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Atnip said she is “a wreck.”
At the corps History Night, late one rainy night in June at Kelly Walsh High School, more than 30 alumni showed up to meet this year’s corps and tell a bit about what the Troopers meant to them.
The 2018 corps gave the alums a standing ovation.
“I was blown away by that,” Atnip said. Dedication extends beyond the members to their families, Atnip said. When she marched, dues were 25 cents a week. Members bought their own meals on the road, and Jones told them to plan $3 a day. Atnip said it cost her parents about $100 a summer (the equivalent of about $900 today).
“I know my dad struggled to budget that some years,” she said.
Now, members audition rigorously, are offered and sign contracts, and pay thousands of dollars for the privilege to sleep upright in tour buses, rehearse 12 hours a day and perform for 10 minutes and 11 seconds at a time, coast to coast. Four nutritious meals a day are prepared for them and served by volunteers.
After graduating from the University of Wyoming with a nursing degree in 1968, Atnip embarked on a 40-year career that included hospital, public health and office nursing. She then taught at Casper College for 25 years. During that time, she worked full-time during the week and traveled to Laramie on weekends to eventually earn her master’s degree.
When her sons Bobby and Richard were in the corps from 1988 to 1990, Atnip went along as the nurse and chaperone.
Atnip and her husband, Doug, have five children and 14 grandchildren — seven boys and seven girls. They winter in Arizona, where she plays drums in her resort community’s band. She has a busy life.
But what happened to her 60 years ago remains just below the surface.
“We were the first corps to break 90 points,” she said. “We were the first to break military ranks with our sunburst circle. We were the first to win nationals with girls. We were the first to win in both the horn and drum line the same year. We won the first Drums Along the Rockies.”
Gallegos was 14 the summer that his parents drove him from Grand Junction to Casper for the first time. As the Troopers rehearsed outdoors on the grassy lawns at Fort Caspar, his parents sat in lawn chairs and watched.
So how did a little skinny baritone player get from Grand Junction to Casper?
“The Troopers bass 5 (biggest and heaviest bass drum there is), Chris Bock, went to the same high school as me (Grand Junction High School). He was a senior when I was a freshman. … One day, he showed me a video of his summer with the Troopers, and I was like, ‘Man, I would really like to do that,’” Gallegos said in a 2016 interview.
He went home, told his parents, Paula and Bryan Gallegos, “and they supported me 100 percent, and still do.”
Now, things have progressed. Gallegos no longer plays baritone but is in his fourth year as drum major, the most revered spot in the corps. He is no longer little or skinny. He has the Troopers brand — crossed sabres and 11 for 11th Ohio Cavalry — tattooed on his left shoulder blade.
Aside from corps charter members like Atnip, very few are Troopers for eight years. This year, as an example, the youngest members were born in 2001 or 2002.
Last August, Gallegos received the Jim Jones Award for outstanding drum major at Drum Corps International at the world championships in Indianapolis.
“The drum major before me, Justin Anderson, is a really good friend of mine. He was runner-up for the award (a different year), and I was almost offended by that. He’s my older brother and the fact that someone who is a perfectionist and a Trooper couldn’t win that … I made it a goal to win it for him.”
This August, Gallegos will lead his corps onto the field in Indianapolis for the final time. He’s not thinking about that. Nor is he thinking about going back to Grand Junction in the fall, where he has one more year before earning his degree in music business from Colorado Mesa University.
Now, as he said on June 11, “there is something special in the air. There is a Troopers energy from 60 years of history backing us up and pushing us forward. Coming back to Wyoming to rehearse, at the end of the day, nothing beats this. This year’s show — all of our historic moments sprinkled throughout — I have 60 days of this left. I’m all in on this summer.”
Corps Director Fred Morris came to the Troopers at its lowest period, in 2006. That summer, the corps did not march as it worked to get its financial house in order. Morris has brought the corps back, to qualifying for Finals (top 12) at World Championships in 2009 and finishing in 13th or 14th position four times since.
“Gabe is like my third son,” Morris said of his drum major. “He’s been with me since he was 14, but he seems like he’s 30. He has turned into a great man, but he’s also a cool kid.”
Asked about the importance of having the right person as drum major, Morris said, “It’s everything. He knows what to do. He is very, very proactive with things. It is far more important what a drum major does and how he acts off the field than it is on.”
There are built-in moments to being a Trooper. There is learning songs such as “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “America the Beautiful” when other corps don’t. There is having photo day on the grounds of Fort Caspar, where the log cabin buildings and gently rolling green hills are the perfect backdrop for the wide-brimmed felt hats and silver buttons, and in Gallegos’ case, horse-head spurs.
And there is this:
Every June 11, no matter where they are rehearsing, the Troopers gather in standstill formation just prior to 11 a.m. Mountain Time. They face the west and exactly at 11 a.m., play one song — “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Jim Jones died suddenly in June of 1994. His funeral was on June 11, at precisely 11 a.m. This year, at 10:58 a.m. Morris told his corps, “We do this every year to honor Mr. Jones. He is buried just over those tree tops.”
The Troopers don’t forget. Not Ruth Anne Atnip, not Gabe Gallegos, not the Troopers who will come next.