Beginnings of the Optimists Alumni

I was wondering about the formation of the Optimists Alumni Drum & Bugle Corps and thought that we should have a brief history outlining its beginnings. I managed to get some feedback from a number of people and I’ve woven their words with mine to create this brief history.

Here's a link to an Acrobat file notifying people of the first rehearsal of the Alumni Corps

How did the Optimists Alumni Corps begin?

What was the actual starting point? What were the elements that helped create the Alumni Corps? When I reflected upon it, I saw that there were a few “happenings” that could be described as starting points.

In one way, we should probably start with the formation of the Toronto Optimists and the values, the personal pride, dedication and sense of family that was instilled in the hearts of its corps members. For this we owe a debt of gratitude to people like Al Baggs, Barry Bell and Lorne Ferrazzutti. I think that this is what created the desire to stay connected through the years and without this, I doubt that there would be an Alumni Corps.

Optimists Alumni at a reunion picnic, September 2003

This photo was taken at the first performance of the Alumni Corps
at a reunion picnic in September 2003

Then there is the tremendous efforts by people like Henry Beben, Ed Nanni, Jim Patten, Len Perrin, Phil Hennings, and others who organized the 25th anniversary reunion. After the "big event" these same people, together with Vern, Ric and others organized reunion gatherings every 5 years. In between, the reason was Len Perrin's “beer bashes”. These events brought together alumni members and helped us stay connected. A tremendous amount of work had to be done to make these events a reality. In fact, the 25th anniversary took over a year to organize! Lists of former corps members had to be compiled, contact info had to be discovered, information had to be verified, people had to be contacted, etc. As a result of this work, we had a framework that allowed us to stay in touch. Phil remembers Vern Johansson suggesting to the Picnic committee that an Alumni Corps be formed but they already had enough on their plates.

The most obvious “beginning” was the actual formation of the Alumni Corps by Vern Johansson, Ric Brown, Mhairi Cumming and George Wright. This brought together the people and the instruments to create a physical entity. Of course, this would have been considerably more difficult if there had not already existed a contact list of former Toronto Optimists and Seneca Optimists members.

So, how did the parts come together?

How did the parts come together?

In 1998 Vern Johansson, Ric Brown, Mhairi Cumming and Len Perrin created the Optimists Alumni Association as a way for former corps people to get together and keep in touch on a regular basis.

Optimists Alumni Receiving an award at G.A.S. 2004

Presentation at G.A.S. 2004

The idea of an Alumni Corps was first suggested by Ric Brown, a long time before anything was actually created. Vern says that he was dead set against it because he felt that it would consume an awful lot of time. And Vern was right! Of course, as well all know, the Alumni corps was formed with his assistance and in spite of his concerns.

When they heard that the Great Alliance of Seniors (G.A.S.) had awarded their convention to Hamilton Vern suggested that it might be neat to have the Optimists show up, perform and then disappear – never to be seen again. He thought there was something romantic in that notion...not to mention mysterious. I guess that others did as well because that got the ball rolling. From then on, all of the fundraising programs were done to help get the corps started.

The actual gathering of instruments started in a rather serendipitous way when Vern ran into Bob Sullivan at a Drum Corps show in Rochester. Bob is the Director of Mighty St. Joes and Vern mentioned that they were trying to get an Optimists Alumni Corps together. Bob thought that was a grand idea and said that if he could be of help, he would.

Vern called him a few months later and asked if he might have any extra equipment that was not being used. He did, so Vern went to Rochester and picked up 12 horns. They were in pretty rough shape but Bob DONATED THEM to us. That's how it started. Then the Simcoe United Alumni Corps (Vern was playing tenor drum with them at the time) offered to give us about 25 horns and 6 drums for ONE DOLLAR. They were on loan and would have to be returned when we could afford our own. After that, the Lakeshore Brassmen in Port Dover folded and they also generously loaned us about 15 horns (some of which we eventually bought). Drums were a major problem and it was Bob Cook who managed to get some on loan from the Emerald Cadets. While waiting for those, Vern got Rob Judd from Simcoe to make 30 drum practice pads which we used in the initial rehearsals.

Meanwhile, Ric, Mhairi and George were busy organizing fund-raising. With the money that was made through Silent Auctions and 50-50 draws, we were able to purchase 6 contra basses from the Kingston Grenadiers for $1,500.

That's about it. We returned every single piece of equipment (didn't lose a single thing) to Simcoe and the Brassmen. It was the generosity of other corps that kept us going and made us very proud to have belonged to such a sharing activity.

A horn instructor

Kevin Matthew tuning horns (Optimists reunion, 2003)

Kevin Matthew tuning horns (Optimists Reunion, 2003)

One other thing. Both Barry Bell and Ray Roussel wanted to play in the corps; however, we needed a horn instructor. They handled the first few rehearsals until Vern hired Kevin Matthew and personally paid his salary until we could afford to pay him as a drum corps.

As for just doing one performance and then know the rest of the story. By the way, our drum line was the talk of the G.A.S. convention. They were unbelievable!

And here are some final thoughts. Dick Brown and Clare Reid took on the enormous task of day-to-day organization. Their contribution to getting the corps off the ground cannot be overplayed. We owe them both a great debt for keeping things stable in the early, wobbly stages.

Also, we thought having rehearsals at the Legion would be a great thing because we had so much history in that building (for those of you who don't know, the Legion was formerly the Rameses Shrine Temple, Optimists' winter home for part of the 60s). Mary was an amazing supporter of the corps and made us really feel wanted in the Legion.

Maybe I’ll end with a quote from Vern: “I'm very proud of how we managed to get the corps started, considering that I was dead set against taking on the project....but that's another story....”