Ten months later, Kelly Bertoni still remembers the conversation.
The drum major for the Michigan marching band stood at the doors of Revelli Hall, the band’s rehearsal space, helping then-Director of Operations Maggie St. Clair bag up bananas and bagels and granola bars for their trip to Ohio State last Nov. 24. St. Clair, decked out in maize and blue, turned to Bertoni.
“Kelly, make sure you have your breakfast, too.”
They embraced, then parted to load the buses. Bertoni didn’t know that simple early-morning conversation would be their last. She didn’t know that tragedy was about to strike. And she didn’t know that soon, she would be sitting in that same Revelli lobby, figuring out how best to honor St. Clair’s memory.
St. Clair was the de facto mom of the band. She organized everything — from coordinating trips to ordering uniform accessories to securing building access. More than that, she made herself available to anyone who needed her. For over 30 years, band members knew that if something was wrong, they could talk to her and she would listen. She would know.
Senior Erin Sickrey, a cymbals player, remembers goofing around with her friends once in Revelli when the handle of a door broke off. Worried, Sickrey walked in holding the handle — and ran right into St. Clair. With her usual grace, St. Clair let Sickrey know it wasn’t a big deal, it could be fixed.
St. Clair took the time to get to know band members, even keeping in touch with alumni and asking about their families. She was always there to say hi or offer a hug. And at 64, it seemed like she wouldn’t be stopping any time soon.
But shortly after loading the buses that November day, the students realized something was wrong. In the middle of attendance, they were told that there had been a medical emergency. Eventually, administrators confirmed it had been St. Clair, but there was little information from the hospital or her husband at first.
And after the three-hour bus ride to Columbus, the students got lunch, then were told St. Clair had died.
“That was the worst day of my life,” said marching band director John Pasquale, one of the administrators tasked with bearing the bad news.
Shortly after, the band had to go out and perform a show in front of fans of their most hated rival, knowing they were in a hostile environment. Ohio State held a moment of silence for St. Clair in the Horseshoe and all things considered, the fans were pretty respectful. But that couldn’t possibly numb the pain in that moment.
To senior Lexi Willison, a trumpet player, the actual show that day was a blur. But she remembers all the other details. She, too, says it was one of the worst days of her life.
“Being there with everybody else, all of us going through the same thing, helped,” Willison said. “But nothing really could ever make up for the fact, what had happened, what we just experienced, us still having to go out there and do our jobs.”
When the band traveled to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl, it was clear just how much they had lost. Not only was St. Clair the emotional heartbeat of the band, she was also the one who organized the logistics of a bowl trip — scouting the venue beforehand, making sure everything was ready to go — and there was an element of disorganization that wasn’t there before. Everyone could feel it.
In April, Bertoni and the rest of the show design committee met in the lobby of Revelli. Their undertaking was, in some ways, normal. After all, the student-run committee meets every year, brainstorming show ideas for the next season. But this time, one loomed over the rest: a show to honor St. Clair.
St. Clair loved Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars. The committee discussed the merits of all those shows, but eventually landed on her favorite — Mary Poppins.
The student committee doesn’t have the final say in what shows make the schedule. They present their ideas to Pasquale, and he decides which ones to run based on target demographics, difficulty and how easy it is to secure the rights, among other things. Pasquale then announces the lineup at the beginning of band week — a two-week boot camp of sorts before school starts each year.
This year during band week, the members found out that not only were they doing Mary Poppins in honor of St. Clair, they could go all out.
The marching band operates in show cycles based on how long they have to prepare for a given game. If there was a show the week before, it’s a one-week cycle — usually simpler shows that are easy to learn in less time. Because the band travels just to Michigan State, Notre Dame and Ohio State, the Big Ten season often operates in two-week show cycles, with an extra week to prepare when the team is away.
But this season, there was a quirk in Michigan’s schedule — an early season bye week, followed by an away game at Wisconsin, then a home tilt with Rutgers. That presented a rare opportunity: a three-week show cycle. The longer the show cycle, the more intricate the shows could be, and a three-week cycle — in which the band has three weeks to learn and prepare for one show — is a rare luxury.
The decision to use the Mary Poppins show for the Rutgers game was obvious. Mary Poppins will be one of the longest and most difficult shows the band has ever done, and throughout rehearsals, the section leaders have made it clear that a show that means so much needs to be perfect.
“This is probably the most seriously people have ever taken a show,” Sickrey said. “ … In other shows, you can goof off a little bit. It’s more fun. But for these ones, the rank leaders are very much emphasizing, ‘There’s no excuses on this show, this has to be perfect, because this is the reason that we’re doing it.’ ”
There’s a story Willison tells some of the new members who didn’t know St. Clair or her impact on the band.
Her dad was in the marching band during his time at Michigan in the late 1980s, and St. Clair was his director of operations, too. They’d stayed in touch, and near 2011, St. Clair invited the Willison family to tour Revelli during a rehearsal. St. Clair showed Lexi — a budding trumpet player in her middle school band — the trumpet lockers, pictures of past sections and a mural with a visual representation of the music for “The Victors.” The trip played a small role in Willison coming to Michigan, and when she got there, St. Clair remembered her and asked about her parents and her younger siblings.
St. Clair wasn’t known as the band mom for nothing. It was almost as if the St. Clair family and three decades of the Michigan marching band family were one and the same, and nothing demonstrated that like St. Clair reaching out to Willison’s long graduated dad and treating his entire family like it was her own.
When Willison was told of St. Clair’s death, she came to terms not only with what had happened, but the fact that she’d have to tell her dad — until she paraded into the stadium and a fellow band member pointed out that her parents were there in the audience. They’d come down to Columbus to surprise her. When the stadium PA announced a moment of silence for St. Clair, the secret was out.
After the game, as the band trekked back to its buses, Willison ran into her dad. They had a good cry together — two generations of marching band members touched by St. Clair and everything she did for the program.
There are different ways to drive home St. Clair’s impact for those who didn’t know her. Some people, like Bertoni — who grew up in St. Clair’s hometown of Chelsea, went to the same church as her family and worked as an assistant to St. Clair for a semester — tell touching personal stories. Others only have to mention her job description. Even the freshmen realize how much goes into running a marching band, and that St. Clair did a lot of the dirty work you only see once you’ve been inside the Revelli doors.
“You think of the smallest details and that’s what Maggie did,” Bertoni said. “Ordering the ties for some of the GSIs and the scarves. She helped me get my uniform and just the dry cleaning, the bills and the management. … And I think a lot of people didn’t realize what that was until unfortunately with her passing, trying to analyze the situation, how we were going to move forward and best prepare moving forward, it was like, ‘Oh, Maggie was doing the job of like five people, that’s crazy.’ ”
Of course, the marching band has a new director of operations now, Kimberly Smith, and Pasquale has taken the time to emphasize that she’s not St. Clair’s replacement: “She’s not filling in Maggie’s shoes, she’s making her own shoes,” as Sickrey recalls Pasquale’s message.
That alone is telling. Smith could do everything perfectly, but it would be nearly impossible for anyone to match St. Clair’s impact.
When the marching band parades out of the tunnel Saturday against the Scarlet Knights, it will all mean more. It’s not just that they’re performing St. Clair’s favorite music, or that the show is in honor of her, but that some of her family will be in the stands, along with countless alumni. On Sunday, the marching band is hosting a celebration of life, and many former members are coming back for it. The band will perform there, too — both their traditional repertoire like the fight song and alma mater, and selections from Mary Poppins. The whole weekend will be dedicated to remembering St. Clair and gaining closure.
“It’s … difficult to imagine that this happened less than a year ago, in some ways, so it’s still kind of fresh,” Bertoni said. “And I think that that is something, sometimes I’m like, ‘Wow, a lot has happened in that time,’ but at the same time, it's still fairly recent.”
Nobody who was there will soon forget that morning in Columbus, but there’s no better way to honor someone who gave her all to the Michigan marching band than putting on one of the most ambitious shows they’ve ever done — and approaching it with St. Clair’s enthusiasm and zeal.
When she was alive, knowledge of St. Clair’s impact was largely confined inside the doors of Revelli Hall. But on Saturday, in front of 100,000 people, the band will have an opportunity to convey a slice of who she was and what she meant to 30 years of marching band members.
“We’re all very much aware of why we’re doing this, who we’re doing this for,” Willison said. “And it’s an honor to be able to be one of the people who can honor her.”