FORT MILL --
Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series leading up to the Fort Mill Band reunion on Sept. 15.
It was 1991, and the Fort Mill High School Marching Band was leaving the field after performing their Christmas-themed show at a competition in Florida.
The next band on the schedule took one look at the Fort Mill band’s performance and decided they weren’t competing anymore, remembers director Bob Cotter.
“The director for the band that followed us on the field came running up and said, ‘I’m not competing; I’m not competing. I only want comments from the judges,’” Cotter said.
It wasn’t the first time, or the last time, that the Fort Mill Band would blow away the competition.
Cotter took over as director of the Fort Mill High School Marching Band in 1987 after being recruited for the position by former director Terry Holliday. During Cotter’s five years as director, he would take the band from being just an award-winning marching band to being both winners and show-stopping performers.
Marching band shows during most of Cotter’s era had themes, costumes and props that helped tell a story to the audience and the judges. A Disney-themed show was performed in front of a replica of Cinderella’s castle – built by the group of parents known as the “pit crew.” The Christmas show featured several wooden Christmas trees that lit up and flashed.
It was the Civil War-themed show that former band member Christi Pearse Knight remembers best. The show opened with “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” During the show the band broke into two parts representing the North and the South.
Without warning, the students would break rank mid-show and stage a war on the field – using their instruments as weapons and flash cubes to represent gun fire.
“The first time he explained to us what we were going to do, I thought it would be the stupidest thing. But it looked great,” Knight said. “I even had people in college ask where I was from. When I told them I’d been in the Fort Mill band they’d say, ‘Civil war show, best show ever.’”
One of Cotter’s signature point-earning moves was the band’s ‘closer.’ It was the 30 seconds at the end of a show where he’d have the color guard race across the field, and the band would perform some of its most difficult and dramatic music.
“The last thing you remember when you meet someone is what it felt like to say goodbye,” Cotter said. “It’s that final goodbye that the judges remember more than anyone else. If you nail that to the wall, your score will go up.”
It’s the 1987 marching band show that Cotter remembers best, though. During a moving rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” the band members would get down on one knee to perform. The song was dedicated to Kimberly Campbell, a color guard member who died in a car accident the summer before her senior year.
“How Great Thou Art” wrapped up on a dramatic note, with a single trumpet performing the final notes. It was a moment that never failed to bring a tear to the eyes of audience members.
Some of those tears were likely from the competition who knew they had just been beaten.
Band students remember Cotter during practices as frequently red-faced and yelling at students to get into position.
“He was yelling sometimes – angry. But later I realized it was because he cared. He was passionate. It wasn’t that he wanted to win. It was that he wanted us to win,” said Chad Carter, a 1993 Fort Mill High School graduate.
Cotter could also be a lot of fun, remembers band member Chuck Watts.
“I remember after the State Championship in 1990, Bob made a promise to the band he would dance on tabletops if we won. Sometime after midnight when we arrived back in Fort Mill with the State trophy, Bob performed that tabletop dance in the band room,” Watts wrote in an email to the Fort Mill Times.
Under Cotter’s direction the band won four S.C. competitions. The band also was named the Festival of States Field Show Champions, Citrus Bowl Field Show champions and won dozens of competitions around the Carolinas. During each awards ceremony, the band stood at attention while they received their awards.
Other bands cheered for themselves, leaped in the air and high-fived their friends. The Fort Mill band’s student leaders accepted their awards with solemnity and celebrated when they left the field.
“First, I don’t want my kids cheering because they won and someone else didn’t. Second, I want these kids to be so proud of what they’ve done. It means so much more than to say, ‘Rah, rah. We won a contest.’ I bet dollars to donuts that most of the kids in the band program are very successful at what they do now because of that work ethic. And when they get a raise or promotion they don’t jump up and down saying, ‘Yay, me,’” Cotter said.
Standing at attention during long awards ceremonies was “the coolest thing,” remembers Carter.
“It was dignified and respectful, and it taught us to be better winners. It set us apart – even when we lost,” Carter said.
When the competition season ended, Cotter didn’t stop pushing his band towards victory. He focused on the concert band, knowing that improving students’ skills as musicians would create a stronger marching band.
Cotter, now a middle school band director in Texas, added flair to the Fort Mill Marching Band’s shows and polish to its concert band.
But there’s one thing he says he never accomplished in his tenure with the Fort Mill band: The band never brought their A-game to a football game.
“Football games are more important than contests. Y’all never understood that. At football games, we were playing for the town. These are the people that support us, and they never got to see us at our best,” Cotter said.
Like the directors that succeeded before him, Cotter points to band parents as one of the secrets to the Fort Mill band’s success. If the band needed something – be it a giant Cinderella castle or a $4,000 bassoon for the concert band – the parents in the band booster club would make it happen.
Support from band parents is essential to the success of a marching band, Cotter said, and he points to the success of the Fort Mill and Nation Ford bands as proof that the marching band’s booster club is still going strong.
But the heart and soul of a band is its students, he added.
“No matter how many parents you’ve got, no matter what else is going on, no matter how good a band director you’ve got – if you don’t have good kids you’re not going anywhere. The parents, yes, made Fort Mill great and have kept Fort Mill great. But it’s the kids who take the steps on the field. That’s the Fort Mill band,” Cotter said.