Luther Band Shines in Memphis

Bison Blinds

It’s the feel-good story of the year. The Luther High School Band, against many odds, spent the week in Memphis as part of a band competition connected to the Liberty Bowl.

The short story is they WON. And they won big.

The long story is about the never quit attitutde of of the band, their director, the parents and those who’ve cheered them on for this big adventure. There was a lot of practice, a lot of planning, and a lot of fund-raising, sacrifice and determination.

They did it. And did it pay off, or what?

Back row Dylan Nelson, Tori Davis, Billy Gilliland, David Richardson, Bailey Duncan, David Seda-Lacelle, Collin Garrett
Middle row Myra Davis, Ashley King, Lauryn Casio, Caleb Sanders, Marie Barnes, Ryan Jasper, Wil Mohr, Alex Brackin, Josh McMahan, Hannah and Lexie Donwell
Front row Courtney Kelly, Kerstyn Eiklor, Cameron Durham, JJ McMahan, Cole McDonald, Zoey Hash

Hannah Donwell was hired as the band director two years ago. Not to dwell on the past, but it was a tough time for the program. When she came to the district and subsequently became a first-time mother to a now one-year-old, her plate filled up quickly. In addition to teaching the high school band – including marching band and pep band, Mrs. Donwell teaches beginning band where 38 fourth and fifth graders are trying out an instrument for the first time. She has 24 students in the intermediate band and 21 students in the 7 – 12 grade band. She also teaches music appreciation and humanities.

She asked the Luther School Board last spring for permission to embark on this trip to Memphis. With the approval, the hard work really began.

Mrs. Donwell and I traded some emails earlier in the fall, right before the band earned a huge grant award from the Community Foundation of Central Electric Cooperative.  This is what she said about the effort.

Most of our students (I’d guess about 80% of the students going) are relying 100% on fundraising to attend this trip. We had a fundraiser the first week of school to kick off our trip payments and sold funnel cakes at the school carnival and home football games. We hosted a “Fall Ball.” The best part about fundraising (in my opinion) is that students have had the opportunity to earn their own way to the trip by working at OSU home football and basketball games. The students take tickets, check bags and usher in order to pay for their trip. A few community members have personally donated for students who can’t afford to attend to be able to travel with us, as well as the companies of parents have also made small donations. One band family sponsored the entire group to attend the Civil Rights Museum (thank you!!).

The biggest fundraising hurdle we had was the expense of the charter bus. This is when I started looking for sponsors because it would have been very difficult to fundraise that entire amount and be able to keep the trip cost as low as possible with students having to pay as little out of pocket for meals and activities. At our initial parent meeting, someone mentioned to me that CREC gave out grants and I scribbled it down with the list of other people I would ask (and you are right- it takes time and effort to write letters and applications for sponsorships and grants but I was committed to making it happen for these students so I did what it takes and stayed up at night until it was done).

The application was easy to find on their website and fairly easy to fill out and send. Then the waiting began. I sent the application in August. In the meantime, I was hearing several “No’s” from other people we asked to sponsor. In the application, I explained the trip and the opportunity the students have to travel and learn outside of their community and also everything we have been doing to get there and what more it would take to get there. Well, thanks to the parents that were praying for the approval and the generous decision from their board, we were approved the FULL amount of the grant. This money comes from the Community Foundation of Central Electric Cooperative and that money comes from the generous customers of CREC that choose to “round up” on every bill.

With the $5,600 grant from the Community Foundation of Central Electric Cooperative, the band would be on its way in comfort and style with the charter bus. The group left the day after Christmas and visited Graceland, the Civil Rights Museum and began competition.

Dennis Delano, Community Foundation Board Member, presents the grant to Hannah Donwell, band and vocal teacher, and the Luther High School Band students.

The band competed with their field routine, to the music of GREASE; and also marched in the Liberty Bowl Parade on Beale Street in Memphis. Their combined scores resulted in a lot of trophies for the group to bring back to Luther.

At the award ceremony, officials congratulated Luther on an “enormous achievement.”

Liberty Bowl Field Show Competition- 1st Place, outstanding marching, outstanding auxiliary, outstanding music

Liberty Bowl parade Competition- 1st place, outstanding drum major, outstanding music, outstanding general effect, outstanding marching and maneuvering


The Seniors and their trophies from the week. Kerstyn Eiklor, Cameron Durham, JJ Harmon. Photo credit to Casey Gilliland

“I think I am still in shock but I wanted to say how proud I am of these students. Hard work pays off. For those who didn’t know, the Pride of Luther is the only high school band that has the honor to perform before the Liberty Bowl game tomorrow. I am truly humbled to be the director of these awesome students,” said Mrs. Donwell after the band’s big win on Friday night.

The group will cross the Mississippi River Sunday on their charter bus for the ride home. Estimated arrival is 4:30 pm at the school. Luther teacher Casey Gilliland is on the trip with her son and has been a dream about posting pictures and videos for those of us at home. It’s been a trip they’ll never forget and Mrs. Gilliland said, “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything!”

Congratulations Luther Band!

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