Honoring Don Warren, Cavaliers Founder

Don Warren Martin McDonnell
A young Cavaliers president Don Warren confers with treasurer Martin McDonnell. One of the fascinating aspects of Don, to me, was his natural tendency toward leadership, and the way he absorbed so much information from his elders, long before he grew into being “The Old Man.” He ran the show.

In Memoriam: Don Warren, 1928-2019

I’ll begin with a confession: I have not spoken to Don Warren for probably five, maybe seven years.

Not since before or shortly after my family and I picked up stakes after 11 years in Chicago, Don’s nearly-lifelong stomping grounds, and trekked west to South Dakota. “You’re WHAT?” I can hear him cackling over the phone. “You’re moving where?” In his imitable style. Beginning with teasing, then seeking to understand, and, eventually, perhaps grudgingly, but unfailingly, support.

That support acknowledged what he’d seen throughout his 70+ years devoted to an enterprise of volunteers, through summer after summer leading one of drum corps’ most storied, and decorated, organizations, The Cavaliers. That you’ve got to wheedle, you’ve got to grin and at times grease the egos and sensibilities of the many dozens it takes to get the show on the road each year. But press too hard, and the gears of the machine seize up.

Keep on chugging, keep on plugging steadily away and maybe the magnetism will draw those wayward cogs back in.

I’d seen it happen throughout the decades of history I’d chronicled, not only of Warren’s life, but of the corps he founded and remained in steadfast devotion to. Giving your time to the Cavaliers wasn’t, couldn’t be, really, a part-time enterprise. And to be around Warren was to be magnetized. Caught up in the magic of it. You couldn’t go halfway.

So I slipped from his grasp, for a time. Though he and the corps were never far from my thoughts. Especially during those summers I’d click through the DCI standings. Catch word of the coming broadcast in theaters. Glimpse changes to the website, evolution in the org chart.

It seemed safer, I guess, to view from a distance. To go about my career and family life and endless lists of my own chores and ambitions. And to keep admiring what the Old Man and legions of men and women devoted to the Cavaliers kept building. The Green Machine rolled on. And to have been a part of it for a few years, as chronicler, as scribe, was a chapter that couldn’t be erased from my own history, and one I’ve been ever grateful for.

To find out, today, through Facebook, that Don Warren, once-president and eternally founder of The Cavaliers, had passed away at 90, weeks after his beloved wife Jan had also passed away, was to feel, keenly, the time that had passed. The conversations we wouldn’t have. But to appreciate, even more gratefully, all that he’d lived through and given.

My fondest thoughts and most heartfelt prayers are with the Cavaliers community today as they mourn, but celebrate, a life given so energetically to their great organization. I’ll share a few excerpts from the work Don and I did together that have been running through my mind this morning. They contain his words, always from the gut, always sparkling with some truth or humor that ever emanated from Don. But more tellingly, they contain the testimony of the families and core members and leaders and volunteers in his orbit. Their story is his story, and vice versa. And it’s one to celebrate.

Rest in peace, Don Warren. Great Old Man. You gave us so much.

Don Warren old days drum corp competition
A shot of Don in the old days, slyly smiling amid the pomp and circumstance of the veterans’ drum corps competitions of the 1950s. Although his Drum Corps International revolutionized the activity and spelled an end to the military-style competition, Don retained a respect for the old soldiers and what they had built. But The Old Man was a modernist, holding old values up to what the current generation most needed, and showed a willingness to change with the times.

Excerpt: from “The Old Man and the Green Machine”

They call him the Old Man. It has been Don Warren’s lot in life since his late teens to be branded as such, though no one can dispute the moniker now. Like some measure of canonical distinction bestowed early in one’s career, or a tuxedo gracing the shoulders of a mailroom clerk, it’s a title Warren has had to grow into, validate. Though today there can be no argument: Don Warren is the Old Man, plain as tapioca pudding.

His corps association knows no off-season, renews itself each winter, when he’ll drive to the school in Rosemont to meet them: kids some 60 years his junior, kids who in their eagerness to be part of the group, one of the gang, remind him of the boys from his neighborhood, growing up, the ones he was somehow destined to lead. Kids, who in the way they flash their drumsticks, blow through an impossible run on the horn, toss a spinning flag and catch it a hair’s breadth from the ground – again and again – never fail to shake a chuckle from his lips, remind him of what a fantastic journey it’s been: his dumb luck, his divine fortune to be ringmaster of this traveling circus for so long. The Old Man – once and forever.

Many Cavaliers’ alumni could tell you stories, touch your heart and tweak your funny bone with tales from the road, and on the field. But Don Warren goes back to the beginning. To the 1940s, when drum corps spawned like summer mosquitoes in the years after World War II, when nearly every neighborhood could count on a marching unit to fight for bragging rights, and if you fit the uniform, you were in. He’s the last still active from those days – out of the entire movement, nationwide – the only man to lead a drum corps from its inception and never let go the reins. “The president,” as he’s fond of cracking, “and still founder.”

There’s something about it that won’t let him go. After retirement, after a heart attack and two multiple-bypass surgeries, something that makes him maintain a second phone line in his house, pick it up, answer, “Cavaliers.” Some reason, at seventy-six, why he still gives a whit about getting the best price on a coach bus for summer tour, makes sure the roster of cooks, drivers, doctors, seamstresses and souvenir salesmen is filled to the last line on the volunteer form. Why he cares for these teenagers at all, still feels they need his guidance, so different from him in upbringing, so focused, practically young professionals, worlds away in talent level and career potential and family income.

He’ll brave the snowflakes all the same this morning in late December, 2004, piloting the silver minivan with the Cavaliers logo through snarls of traffic, foregoing other errands to make a stop at the school where auditions are held. He’ll wander the halls, shake hands, poke his head in classrooms, bust the chops of instructors he’s friendly with – and he’s friendly with everyone – sidle up to kids who didn’t make the cut and urge them to “practice. Try again next year,” pick a tray from the stack in the cafeteria and file through the chow line, take his place at a long table among denizens of the MTV generation, and hold court.

He’s the Old Man, you see. He’s got to.


It’s eleven miles, give or take, from the Church of the Advent in Chicago’s Logan Square to the modern, gleaming glass tower housing the Cavaliers’ headquarters in Rosemont. If you catch a break in traffic, making the drive from old to new takes 15 minutes. But the distance, as measured in gallons of sweat, and heart palpitations, and the number of nervous nights wondering if the books would balance, is far greater.

It took the Cavaliers some five decades to ascend from the basement of the neighborhood church where they were founded to the ninth-floor offices at the top of the U.S. Bank Corps tower. The suite is four-rooms, more or less, but from this corner thrums the engine of today’s Green Machine. The shelves of the supply closet in back are heaped with souvenir pens, Cavaliers T-shirts and caps, instruction books and season DVDs, waiting for dispatch to all corners of the globe by corps treasurer Don Heitzman. Secretaries Rosanne Duewerth and Peggy Kosin work the phones in the room next door, selling tickets to the Naperville home show, taking down uniform sizes, accepting payment of dues, coordinating rides from the airport to the audition site, entertaining corps hopefuls who wait on the couch in the foyer. Kosin remembers the boy who walked in sporting “a 15-gallon-sized hat” and shirt that said, simply, TEXAS. “You can always tell a drummer,” she says. “He walks in with a swagger, a strut.” And besides, his hands give him away – they never stop moving, drumming on the couch, walls and doorframe as he studies the trinkets and trophies adorning this nerve center of the corps.

There are plaques proclaiming the Cavaliers’ six DCI championships, and group photos accompanying each title, recording the tanned and grinning mugs of members in the flush of glory. A framed drawing traces the corps’ evolution: Cavaliers throughout history are arranged in an arc around the cigar-munching mug of founder Don Warren. The boys, as they sit, take in the odd, billowing navy pants of the 1949 edition, quaint band-style shakos of the 1950 corps, the outsized, silver belt buckles and black, swash-buckling vests of their 1970s brothers. On a wall opposite the drawing is a plaque etching the best of their forebears in gold nameplates beneath the legend Cavalier of the Year. Current director Jeff Fiedler is commemorated there, beside 1980, his final year as drum major. Fiedler has celebrated more than thirty July birthdays on the road with the corps since first suiting up at 13. He’s seen thousands of faces troop through the ranks in his tenure; his vice-like mind clings to their stories, even as they’ve gone on to other adventures, grown-up life away from bus rides and Boo Parties and devilish pranks, while he’s stayed and played Peter Pan, leading the charge again each golden summer.

If Fiedler were buzzing about in the offices, he could gaze into the 1992 corps picture and treat the boys to a history lesson – where are they now, the first Cavaliers to grab DCI’s top prize? There, in the front row, he’d point, a tiny, dark-haired kid, the youngest that season, Nathan Smith. He’s a big guy now, shaved his head, became one of the first showboat designers on the cable TV home-improvement shows. In the second row, Doug Johns, snare drummer from Spring, Texas; he went on to Baylor University, did graduate work at the University of Michigan before joining the team that came up with the drug Cialis. Rob Wis, a third-generation Cavalier, was drum major in 1992. Today, he’s an accountant for McDonald’s and father of four.

There’s Wayland Abernathy, soprano trumpet turned golf pro. John Bartlett and Phil Macino, executives with Federal Express and Microsoft, respectively. Sean Salinas, gunning for a role in the Blue Man Group. “God, these guys have gone on and done incredible things, the more I look at this,” Fiedler says. Many made careers in music. Fiedler’s finger moves over the percussion line.

There’s Mark Miller, way over on the left end, top row, a baritone in ’92. Today he gigs around the country on trombone. David Warner, with the closely-cropped dark hair, served as tuba and sergeant in the U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, better known as the President’s Own. Matt Ownby runs a music publishing company, Rell Lafargue is an orchestral percussionist, John Hatfield drums for New York City recording studios. “These are great musicians, all great musicians,” Fiedler says. “I can go ‘band director, band director, band director,’ just like that.”

Andrew Keith teaches percussion in Gurnee, Ill., Spiro Dorizas in Greece. Dean Westman – the kid wearing glasses three over from the top right corner, ears poking way out – directs the band at Stephen F. Austin High School. Dan Belongia, Erik Harris, D.J. Alstadt, Eric Majors – band directors. This is the pattern that emerges through this gift of remembering, matching faces to dreams realized, of the Cavaliers as factory for upstanding men.

It wasn’t always this way – the music part. There’s been a shift in this latest generation, so focused: start this activity in grade school, study with this top-name teacher, secure a recommendation to this elite program, sprint from novice to master before 25. It’s an era of specialization, of means to an end. The Cavaliers’ municipally-sponsored digs mirror this phenomenon. Through the windows one spies planes gliding to land at O’Hare Airport, nestled in the elbow of Interstates 294 and 90 across the way. Along Rosemont’s main drag is evidence of a suburb engineered for maximum economic impact, some $248 million yearly. The massive gray façade of the Donald E. Stephens center calls to conventioneers with its million-square-feet of meeting space; the All-State arena looms as a white-walled castle fortified to collect your entertainment dollar. There’s the glass-walled glitter of the Rosemont Theater, even a museum of Hummel figurines – largest collection in the world. Hotels sprout like flowers spilling down the hill in front of the convention center, though the blossoms of the hospitality industry are more numerous – 5,200 guestrooms in all. Skybridges crisscross overhead, pulling the eyes of 50,000 annual visitors skyward.

It can be dizzying, the modern sprawl, like a marching show executed at breakneck tempo. And if the five requirements for becoming a Cavalier are talent, dues, attendance, attitude and health, old-guard alumni cite dues, first, and talent, second, as signs times have changed, and not necessarily for the better. When it costs a few thousand dollars per summer to participate, when virtuoso skill is required for admittance, who does the organization serve? Certainly not the ruffians and ne’er-do-wells of old, who got on the straight-and-narrow as a result of corps membership.

But Don Warren doesn’t look at these kids and see strangers. There’s something he recognizes in their eyes – a desire, a fighting spirit, a bit of the rascal, too, heirs to a long line of pranksters. They don’t take themselves nearly as seriously as their predecessors assume. There’s a question Warren poses at audition camps: Why the Cavaliers? They respond:

“We hear members are treated with respect. They aren’t yelled at, put under pressure.”

“The chance to win a championship.”

“The tradition.”

“Why not?” says a prospective member from Hawaii. “It’s the best corps. Besides, the chicks dig green.”

Good reasons all around, Warren figures. The Cavaliers must be doing something right. “I have 135 reasons for what I do,” for staying involved, he explains. “I liked what it did for the kids.”

When Warren encounters old guys at reunions, or young guys at the year-end banquet, talking about what being a Cavalier means, he feels validation, that his time on earth has amounted to something. When the boys don their uniforms before a show, “you’d think they were putting on gold, I can see that in ‘em.” There’s reverence for what they belong to. And so, too, does Warren take pride in what his charges have gone on to do after their time in the corps is done. Their achievements become superimposed on his own.

He has the gift, too, of remembering. He enters the suite of offices this December morning and pauses before the framed drawing, eyes the cartoon likeness of himself. It’s a younger version, hair a little darker – though just as boiled-egg sparse – and victory cigar clamped between his teeth instead of propped in his shirt pocket, wrapped in plastic. Doctor’s orders are to light up only on special occasions, and so he resorts to gumming a chewing brand, apologizing for the habit, the moistened “turds” that accumulate in the ashtray. But an old man takes his pleasure where he can, and there is still a vitality in Warren, a bit of the insurance salesman who juggled the top corporate accounts, the wheeler-dealer who has long gotten by on personality. There’s his easy grin, and gimlet eyes, green with a splash of blue in the center, the warm press of palm in his handshake – not too limp, not too firm – and his way of slipping into a story, this gift for attaching names to faces so distant they’ve been immortalized in art. “There’s Bernie Mix,” he says, squinting at the blots of ink and pencil.

The first Cavaliers weren’t musicians, destined to lead orchestras. That ragtag bunch was destined to build city streets and bridges, root around in sinks and sewers, fry short-order eggs and fix engines. They were Chicago old-neighborhood kids, looking to kill time on a Saturday afternoon. They wore a khaki Boy Scout uniform parading down Milwaukee Avenue, played a straight bugle – no valves – and tied the knots for their own snare drum slings, thank you.

Warren Alm, among the original buglers, earned a degree in microbiology, worked for Kraft as a food research technologist. Don Pikey became a foundry engineer with International Harvester and Caterpillar. Glen Hatton became Dr. Hatton, researching brain biology and serving at the University of California in Riverside. Sal Ferrera, one of the corps’ most talented teachers and composers, a self-taught musician, went on to teach economics at DePaul University and run a Chicago development company.

John Bardos earned pay as an agricultural engineer, Frank Batka as sheet metal worker. Bill Dragland delivered mail, Johnny O’Brien worked construction. Ron Phillip was a military policeman, later went into security. Ron Allen worked for Trans World Airlines 34 years, doing just about everything but fly the planes. Jarvis Fiedler was art and creative director for several advertising agencies, devising TV commercials for clients including Zenith, Kraft, Coors and Falstaff beer.

One trait all carriers of Cavaliers tradition have in common, no matter how many years separate them: they’ll beat the pants off any corps crossing their path, an attitude forged in Logan Square in the late 1940s, with Don Warren’s original “street kids.” In the yellowed images of his memory, he pictures them still, as they were then: young, eager and wild, and on the verge of something bigger than them all.

Excerpt, from “The Legacy of Don Warren”

The Old Man worries sometimes. It’s true. About how the corps will carry on after he’s gone. After he, Don Heitzman, Adolph DeGrauwe, and the other faded green Cavaliers march off into the rainbow glow at the gentle down-slope of life. “I was about 18 years old when I started the Boy Scout thing,” he says. “Man, I just can’t picture me not being a part of that.”

But he’s found ways to let go. He’s set his own “age-out” date for December 2008, when the corps will celebrate its 60th birthday and Warren will turn over the reins as president to DeGrauwe.

“I hope I’m the easiest guy to replace,” Warren says, “because I’ve withdrawn a lot from the day-to-day.” Uh, baloney, Heitzman insists. Warren still handles the corps’ insurance, makes sure all buses are road-ready with drivers behind the wheel, and serves as the Cavaliers’ all-important ambassador to Rosemont. “Maybe we’re not too smart,” Heitzman concedes, “doing it all these years. I think I gave back to the corps a long time ago. I don’t like the stress. I’m retired.” But in the next breath Heitzman smiles, and speaks of the rewards of a job well done. “I think having reached a point where we are economically solvent, (it’s easier to consider stepping away). I’d like to think I’ve had some part in that.”

DeGrauwe wants to see the Cavaliers survive and thrive – no matter the twists and turns drum corps as an activity may take in the future. He’s amazed at all the changes, in competitions, shows and organizational structure, since he marched in the mid-1950s. Who knows what drum corps will look like twenty years from now? But he hopes the Cavaliers will still be in the picture. “I think something’s gonna be there, whether it will be drum and bugle corps or something else.”

Warren worries – it’s his nature. Drum corps is his undying teenage crush. It still brings a flutter to his heart and twists his guts, propels him to wakefulness mornings and furrows his pillow at night. How long will the cook truck last? What about grounding one bus to try and save fuel? How come this kid passed up another year to march – was there a flaw in our system? Did this volunteer receive all due appreciation at the year-end banquet? Mostly, he frets over the future, stuff he likely won’t be around to handle. He’s seen so many corps fold over the years, and nearly watched his own swirl down the tubes: has he done everything he can to prepare those who will follow? Can his doctor promise just two more years – wait, he’d like to know his youngest grandchild: Doc, can you get him another four, even five?

The Old Man can get morbid sometimes, calculating how much time he’s got left, how long 11 bypasses will hold. His family rallies around him by insisting God doesn’t want to deal with his micromanagement just yet. “Then all the rainbows will be green, white and black,” granddaughter Leah says. “He’s gonna take over,” son Jim says. “And he would – he’d have the Big Cheese up there, you know, saying, ‘Yeah, OK, I’ll do this for ya, Don. No problem.”

But more and more these days, it seems like all the old friends, the dear ones from cherished times, are going, some long gone. “You just keep hearing it,” daughter Jan says, “another wake, another wake, another wake. When it’s my Dad,” she says, quietly, “I picture the lines going down the block.”

“I think you’re wrong,” Don Warren interjects.

“I don’t think so,” says Dan Noel.

“I don’t want it to happen,” Jan says, “I want him to be here forever. But what I picture, if word got out, the number of people he’s touched the last 60 years, I can’t imagine. Think of all the kids over the years, who are adults now. I’d rather his dying be 50 years from now and have me and Mom be the only ones there.”

“Well, I’m not rushing it!” Don hastens to add.

Perhaps it’s only natural for a man to take stock, wonder at the impact he’s had, contemplate how soon his name, too, will fade from conversation, his vitality be confined within the edges of yellowed photographs, tucked away in fraying albums. But if there’s one thing the Old Man needn’t worry about, it’s his legacy. And if he’d only listen – for a moment mind you, then go back to all the living that’s left to do – any number of friends are lining up to tell him.

“His legacy is already written, in all the people he’s touched through years of drum corps,” Kathy Hartig Mock says. “Everybody knows that Don is not going to be around forever, but I hope the Cavaliers will always be. The Cavaliers mean as much to the people that march today as it meant to my brothers when they marched 40 years ago, and that’s an amazing legacy.”

How can you argue with the Old Man’s conversion rate, the roster of souls who’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, or C.S., whatever. Kathy Mock calls it the Cavalier Way, the impulse that draws her hands to her pockets anytime she wanders into a practice, or attends a show. A kid is $100 short for the summer? Or $300? Or $1,000? Well, hang on a second, let’s see what I’ve got. “I think it says a lot about the man who started it,” wife Jan says. “They saw what he was doing. He gave his time, he was building it. Because these are good people, they would help him because they saw he was doing a good thing. They admired and respected him because they saw him give his time. And for a lot of them, he gave his time to their sons.”

It’s a legacy of lessons – how to live the right way, of doing unto others, realizing your own potential. Dorothy Maryanski can watch the guys file onto the field in their green and black and feel a lasting kinship. “That’s my share. I can put a clean uniform on the field. There’s just a feeling. It gets in your blood and you just gotta be there. To this day, I would kill to go out on tour with them. I’m 64, and I have cancer, and I can’t do that anymore, and it’s just killing me.”

“I think what we always strived to do was be the best at what we did,” Sal Ferrera says. “That’s kind of a cliché, but it’s the truth. We strived for it, we had pride, we had excellence. We strived for success and we got it. That’s the story of the Cavaliers – they still do that. We still succeed. They instill that extra fortitude in their people.”

It’s about taking risks – the right ones, ones for the greater good – and being open to ideas, and to change. Madison Scouts old-timer Bill Howard hopes the efforts of DCI’s founding fathers aren’t lost on the current generation. Don Warren is one bridge between the old and new. “Clearly, because of their foresight – Don’s been there longer – but I think that Don and Jim Jones are kind of the architects. Then we had others who have implemented the architecture – the Combine, and that sort of thing, brought others into it. But largely, because of (Don’s) longevity, as well as his insight, there’s probably nobody in the activity that’s been more influential.”

When DCI’s current executive director, Dan Acheson, was a kid in the 1970s marching first with Cincinnati’s Queen City Cadets and later for the top-tier Madison Scouts, he didn’t hear much about the man whose idea for a drum corps Combine gave him the greatest experiences of his childhood and a fulfilling career track. But as Acheson rose in the ranks, serving the Toledo Glassmen as director from 1985-95, and since then as head honcho of the whole activity, he came to know Warren, and admire the Cavaliers. “They have exhibited significant leadership, especially in the last 15 years,” Acheson says, “in terms of their program design, their drill design, how they teach, how they take care of their kids on the road. It’s just been remarkable. And then being able to modernize themselves while still hanging on to 60 years of tradition – that’s nothing short of remarkable as well.”

Acheson faced a daunting task when he took over DCI. Membership was dwindling, the organization had run up hundreds of thousands of dollars debt. As he worked to repair the foundation, then break down barriers to grow the movement, he found staunch allies in Jeff Fiedler and Warren. “I could have very quickly been discounted by all the old guys, the founders and so forth, because of the decisions I was making, where I was taking this organization. Don was always very supportive. He comes into my office, and we sit down, and we talk, and he gives me his perspective. I explain what I’m up to, he counters it: ‘Consider this. I don’t think it’s the right thing, but I trust ya.’ I can’t begin to tell you what that kind of support means to me.”

When Acheson attended the Cavaliers’ 50th anniversary celebration, he listened intently as Warren strode to the podium to talk about DCI. “For someone of his years, it just amazed me at how enthused he was, saying that we need to keep changing, and keep finding new ways to do things. When he said those words in regards to DCI, he continued to be a visionary, where he could have been ‘I don’t like the way things are going,’ or ‘I don’t like change; I’ve had enough of that.’ Instead he embraced it. I’ve always been so impressed with him from that standpoint. I think that’s why the Cavaliers have been as successful as they have.”

Success, sacrifice – these are attributes that do more than attract others. Once that spirit is embraced, anyone – from the most powerful benefactor to the humblest student – finds it difficult, near impossible, to let go. Bradley Stephens, Rosemont councilman and youngest son of Mayor Donald, saw the profound respect his father had for Warren, the pride when his faith resulted in championships, and lives boosted for the better. “He got such a kick out of it when they brought him that championship ring. It’s still proudly displayed in the house, as well as the others they provided. He knew the hard work that went into that stuff, and to see it pay off, that was the ultimate. Don Warren is a peach of a guy, and just a wonderful man. The time and effort that he and his wife, the whole family and the extended Cavaliers family, put in, that spirit of volunteerism, that was their just reward. They better be rewarded in the afterlife, because the effort they put forth and the people they’ve put up at their home – those types of stories are just never-ending.”

So this is what carries on: the good works done reflected in others, lessons passed on, leadership by example. Elijah Mondy calls Sal Ferrera the greatest musical director in the history of drum corps. “I believe that there was something about the music he wrote with the Cavaliers that was just part of the chemistry, that savvy. It was just something about the sound, that he just knew how to write music that instilled the Cavalier mystique.” Paired with Mondy’s picks for the greatest drill instructor in history – Lenny Piekarski – and the greatest drum instructor – Larry McCormick – the Cavaliers were once-in-a-lifetime special, unbeatable. “And the greatest manager, greatest president in the history of drum corps was Don Warren.”

Bruce Tietgen describes Warren’s persona as “half-boy, half-man. He had a great way with the boys; we all admired the hell out of him. But on the one hand he ran a tight ship. ‘Cause Don would fight. He would stand up. I would sometimes stand in awe, going to a meeting of managers and watching how he’d operate. He was proud of his organization and nobody was going to in any way step on him. He fought for the corps, and we respected him very much.”

“He knows what he wants, and he knows how to get it,” son Jim says. “And the problem, or the hard part, is convincing everybody else that he knows, you know, that he’s right and they’re wrong. I would say he has a very persuasive way of having people come to his way of thinking. You could sit in there and be so mad at my dad, ready to quit, drop everything and leave, and he’d come over and put his arm around ya, and about a minute after that, you’d want to run through a wall for him. It was something that Dad had. I can’t explain it. Sometimes I wish I had it.”

Jan Warren Noel still draws on her father’s advice that long-ago day when she came to him in tears after reaching the breaking point as Imperials drum major. “‘If there’s something you want to do, don’t let anyone push you out.’ I hear myself saying it to my girls. You’ve gotta make your own decisions and be a good enough person, have enough self-confidence to say no or to say yes, whatever it is.”

“My models were Don Warren, Lenny Piekarski, Sal Ferrera,” Ken Nolan says. “I keep on hearing them – all of that crap is still rattling around up there. I cannot lose to this day.”

Of the honors Piekarski has accumulated in his life and career, all pale in comparison to one impossible wish, to have suited up in the green, if only for a moment. “I feel I am a Cavalier,” he says, “but I would have loved – we could have done it in exhibition – if I could have marched in the color guard, or just stood there for one show. I could have done that very easily ‘cause I wrote the drill. Just to be there,” he says, voice trailing off.

That kind of feeling, that devotion – how can you argue with it? How can the Old Man not be eternally touched by it, and know that what he has given will endure long after he is gone? Warren Alm, see, knows how to drive a bus, has even kept his license active. He’s one of many who stand ready, old men themselves, waiting for the Old Man’s call. “You never know,” Alm says. “The time may come when they may need me again.”

The need for groups like the Cavaliers never dissipates, never gives way to fad or fashion. It’s just passed on, to a new generation that stands at the ready. “They were awesome, and they still are,” Dorothy Maryanski says. “And I’m so happy I was a part, a little bitty part to help make them what they are now. I hope they go on forever. ‘Cause I have a grandson? That’s 7?” And she laughs, the kind of rolling, unbridled chuckle that could bounce along endlessly, and never fade. “And he looooves the drums.”

Don Warren Craig Bales
Don Warren and Dr. Craig Bales, on tour with the Cavaliers in 2006. Warren was proud of the stellar individuals, like Bales, who came to define the Cavaliers organization, knowing that he alone could never have steered them alone to the glory and sustainability as a group that they achieved together.

Excerpt, from “Two Years of Saturdays”

Saturdays were Cavaliers days. From January 2005 through April 2007, most every weekend I could spare was spent in the company of the Old Man.

We began around 11. “Any earlier and my wife would wonder why I didn’t get up the rest of the week,” Don would say. We’d make ourselves comfortable in the living room of the Warrens’ condo in Wood Dale, Don rocking back in his easy chair and the young, visiting writer perched on the couch a table’s length away. Don, remembering, chewed through time as he gnawed cigar after cigar to their bitter ends in the ashtray beside him. And I, pounding away on the keyboard lying warm in my lap, attempted to capture every nuance, every “and the guy says,” and big, bellowed “We-eeell.”

I learned early on Don was a natural storyteller. My job was to chart the course and see where he took us. What you’re holding is the result of our collaboration. A work of faith some three-hundred folks contributed to in ways large and small when it was all said and done. But the spark was kindled in that living room. An old man talks, and a young writer listens.

One of the lessons I learned was you can try to wrap a cover around history, but it keeps spilling off the page. Even as our interview sessions evolved into readings, our relationship blossomed from a reporter asking questions of a source, to a friend knowing a life’s stories as well as its owner, I was stunned at the speed with which the world kept turning, even as I tried to freeze it for posterity.

As many corps celebrated history – including the Racine Scouts’ 80th anniversary in 2007, and the Madison Scouts’ 70th in 2008 – the wheels of Drum Corps International motored steadily toward the future, at least when it didn’t concern gasoline prices. The record cost of oil drove many corps to distraction in 2005 and ‘06, with the Cavaliers hitting up donors to “sponsor a mile” for their summer tour, and some in the old guard wondering if a return to regional competitions made more sense than the national touring that has typified the movement since the 1970s. But DCI was already making moves of its own, for reasons other than costly barrels of crude.

The 2007 championship in Los Angeles was to be the last, at least for the next decade, located outside Indianapolis, to which DCI moved its headquarters from Addison, Ill. The Indiana capital has set itself up as music central, boasting the headquarters of Bands of America, the Percussive Arts Society, Orchestra America, the American Pianist Association, and other groups. Laying down roots will help DCI expand its championship week, executive director Dan Acheson says, to include educational clinics and fan events as well as an international drum corps symposium in 2008. “By being in Indianapolis for a long period of time we’ll be able to get community support behind our event, which is hard to get now because we’re (in a championship city) one year and who knows if we’re coming back? A community only has so much to give for an event that comes and goes like that, whereas in Indianapolis you’re coming to be a part of the community. We’ve never had the advantage of having our staff in the same city as our biggest event. Just the thought of that alone, what can go on with that, has been very attractive to us.”

In early 2006, the Cavaliers celebrated their 25th year with Rosemont as sponsor as the village itself celebrated its 50th birthday. The hills of Camp Fort Dearborn, where Don Warren and the Troop 111 scouts hiked in the 1940s, ended up as site for the waterfall just down the way from the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, and the village’s support remains the lifeblood of a corps that aims for glory every summer.

Sadly, Rosemont’s and the Cavaliers’ shared history took another turn in 2007. Mayor Stephens passed away in April following a long battle with cancer. Stephens was a lifelong resident of Rosemont, and mayor since its incorporation – 51 years, longest in Illinois history. “I lost a good buddy,” Warren said the morning after Stephens’ death, and repeated in succeeding weeks, haunted by the passing of another soul who’d played so vital a role in his life story.

The Old Man faced challenges to his own health. In summer 2006, a pacemaker was implanted in his side. In spring 2007, he underwent an angioplasty, during which he suffered a heart attack. Doctors put a stop to Warren’s cigar-chewing, and more than a few of our Saturdays wound down early, as he complained of weakness, fuzzy-mindedness, the general hell of getting old. “The only thing good about it,” he cracked, “is that you didn’t die young.”

Still, there’s a vitality about Warren that defies the daily prescription cocktail, that shines through in his insistence at carrying a celebratory cigar at DCI finals in Madison, his continued presence at auditions and shows and fundraisers. The spirit that founded the Cavaliers, that sparked DCI, that is father to four and grandfather to nine and faithful friend to countless others, bounces back, again and again, for another helping. “I’ll never get rid of the goose bumps,” I heard a fan exclaim as I exited the stands in Madison. The only thing I’m left wondering at the end of this book, is who got a bigger charge from this – all of us, or Don Warren himself?

“If I won $125 million,” he says, “besides taking very good care of my family, I’d go back to my second childhood and start another drum corps. I’d love it. Go to the schools now and get kids that are interested in learning to play drums or bugles. I’d sponsor it myself. Oh yeah, I would have so much fun.”

Don Warren
Don Warren, in his element, on tour in 2006 at DCI Finals. Then-president, and always founder of the corps, The Cavaliers.

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