Band Hazing: The Part of William P. Foster’s Legacy We Prefer to Ignore

February 6, 2012

By Peter McKay | FAMU ’97 | Email

A little while back, I told Time magazine’s Tim Padgett that I believe comparing FAMU’s band scandal to Penn State’s mishandling of child molestation is more than fair to FAMU. The scandals share two out of three characteristics that I think make for a fair comparison. On the third — the question of whether someone died as a result of campus misconduct — FAMU actually fares worse than Penn State.

I’ve been saying that purely in the sense of ascribing moral responsibility to institutions as a whole. But the more I think about it, I’d like to add one caveat: If we want to run with the FAMU-Penn State comparison for the sake of constructing a human narrative, I think there is one crucial detail that demands some clarification.

Who’s the Joe Paterno figure at FAMU?

Several journalists who have written about FAMU recently have defaulted to Julian White as the answer. This is certainly fair enough on the surface. He’s the bungling bandmaster left holding the bag when Robert Champion died after the 2011 Florida Classic. As the leader of the Marching 100 since 1998, he’s definitely been a powerful fixture on campus.

But if you want to answer the question in terms of the Marching 100’s full history, who had the most monumental tenure with the organization, and how hazing culture took root in the first place, the better Paterno stand-in is the 100’s founding bandmaster William P. Foster. He was bandmaster from 1946 to 1998 — an astonishing 52-year stretch that’s more than triple the length of White’s tenure. He mentored Dr. White and pretty much everyone else on staff for years, and he launched essentially all the band’s defining traditions, including weak-kneed response to hazing abuses.

Like Paterno at this point, it’s also sadly true that we’re still dealing with the fallout of Dr. Foster’s oversights even though the man himself is no longer with us. He passed away in August 2010.

For a lot of Rattlers, I realize his death is still a pretty recent memory. Dr. Foster is not yet such a distant historical figure that we can discuss his legacy with real detachment, and believe me, I hate to speak ill of people who aren’t here to defend themselves.

That said, the truth is the truth. Remember, this blog from the beginning has concerned itself with long-term hazing culture, how it’s transferred across generations, and how to break the continuity. You simply can’t eliminate hazing in the present day without confronting the past. By that standard, we can’t overlook Dr. Foster’s legacy regarding hazing in the Marching 100.

The topic is on my mind this week because of a lengthy comment by Reginald K. Wilkes, who was a Marching 100 member in the early 1980s. He thoughtfully responded to a recent post by ’90s-era alum Tracy Harmon about her experience with sorority hazing at FAMU with a frighteningly detailed description of his own experience within the band. It includes not only violence by Reginald’s antagonists but also a certain measure of the same stuff in self-defense by Reginald and his roommate who didn’t want to be hazed.

Reginald’s narrative includes this very damning passage:

I know personally of a student that was beaten with pipes, and bricks, kicked up the hill on the patch with combat boots at late night section rehearsals, after Dr. Foster gave the words. “Upperclassmen do what you must”, when the lights went down on the patch, freshmen ran for their lives to Sampson Hall and Paddyfoote Dorms.

I have to say, this story is an amped-up version of a theme that’s recurred in my own conversations with several band members over the years, to the extent that I can get Rattler friends and acquaintances to open up at all about the touchy topic of band hazing. When pressed, they tend not to describe Dr. Foster as particularly diligent about policing hazing within the band. (Dr. White, who was the longtime assistant to Dr. Foster before taking over, also doesn’t tend to come out like a gem, his recent one-man PR campaign notwithstanding. My sense is that both these guys practiced the fine bureaucratic art of plausible deniability for a long time.)

I should add: My own roommate at FAMU and current business partner, Lawrence Patrick, was assaulted by his bandmates in 1994 as a member of the Marching 100’s drumline. Like Reginald, Lawrence didn’t want to subject himself to ritualized hazing, which led to what you might describe as a more “freelance” sort of violence. Lawrence complained and came away highly unsatisfied with the response by both Dr. Foster and his then-assistant Dr. White.

I’ve been encouraging Lawrence to write something for the blog so you can hear the full details in his own words, and I think we may still get him to do it yet. If that day comes, you’re in for another doozie of an anecdote, believe me.

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