I didn’t know who Mike Leckrone was before I chose to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Truth be told, I really didn’t know anything about the Wisconsin marching band. I didn’t know about the 5th Quarter, or about the band’s unique marching style. When I looked at colleges (many years ago…), I wanted to do the marching band. I knew UW had a band, and that was all I needed to know.
Little did I know that I’d end up marching for a man who had such a profound impact on so many people’s lives for the last 50 years. That man, of course, was Mike Leckrone.
As Mike conducts the Wisconsin band for one final time at Camp Randall Stadium, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on what it meant to march for Mike. Like so many others who marched in his band before me and those who marched for him in the 10 years after my final game, Mike had an impact on my time in college — and he taught me lessons that I’ve kept with me ever since.
I’ll never forget the time my freshman year when Mike singled me out during a practice because he thought I wasn’t marching hard enough. (He was right.) “Mason!” he yelled, stopping the practice. He had me march side-by-side with an upperclassman while the entire rest of the band watched, making sure I knew the proper form and technique. It was humiliating at the time, but I’ll tell you what: I made sure I never loafed again during one of Mike’s practices.
Mike didn’t do that to pick on me. He did it because he expects the best from every one of the 300-plus members in his band. I wasn’t doing the best I could at that time, and Mike recognized it — and then ensured that I put forth my best effort. The things Mike was able to see from his perch were incredible. Nothing escaped his watchful eye.
He had a knack for making everyone believe in themselves, for making you dig down deep and realize that you’re capable of more than you might initially think. It’s summed up by the band’s slogan: “Eat a rock.” Marching in the Wisconsin band was the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done. (And the reason that, instead of gaining the “freshman 15,” I actually LOST 15 pounds my freshman year despite eating nothing but junk.) Yet as physically taxing as it was, all of us knew we could do it because Mike believed we could do it, and we knew he wouldn't ask us to do anything he didn't think we were capable of.
I haven’t met many people in life who are as passionate about what they do as Mike. To do anything for 50 years takes an extreme amount of dedication, and Mike gave his entire career to making the Wisconsin band into the wonderful group that it is. For generations of students, of band members, of Badger fans, Mike Leckrone embodied the UW band. And now as he sets down his baton to call it a career, it’s weird to envision the band marching under the direction of anyone else but Mike.
At the end of each season, Mike would get emotional as he acknowledged the seniors who were marching in their last game. He knew that they would never have that experience of marching in front of 80,000-plus passionate fans or playing another 5th Quarter. Sure, those were reasons why we band members got emotional when our time was up. But it was also sad because we knew we’d never march for Mike again.
I won’t be able to make it to Mike’s final game, and I wasn’t able to march for him one more time this year with the alumni band. I did, however, make a special trip in September to go watch Mike conduct the band one more time. My wife and I — we wouldn’t be together if not for the band, even though she wasn’t a band member — followed the band back to Humanities, where Mike addressed the group as he does after every game. It was there that I had a few minutes to chat with Mike and share with him how glad I was to see him lead the band one more time.
Mike isn’t a fan of goodbyes, whether it was at the end of a game, a concert or a season. Instead, he’d always say, “We’ll see you real soon. And On, Wisconsin.”
So I won’t say goodbye to Mike Leckrone. Instead, I’ll say: Thanks, Mike. We’ll see you real soon. And On, Wisconsin.