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Profiles in Badassery: Roy Johnson

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Roy Johnson got his start by pushing the Big Bass Drum, but his career connects from the first marching band formation in 1907 until today.

Roy and his wife Sarah after the spring Band departmental banquet.
Roy and his wife Sarah after the spring Band departmental banquet.

Roy Johnson is Purdue.

The Voice of the Purdue All-American Marching Band has a connection to Spotts Emrick, who created the block P in 1907, Neil Armstrong, Drew Brees, and even today's students. This week, instead of welcoming someone home during homecoming week, Purdue will prepare to say farewell to a long-time member of its family. You know him as the Voice behind our iconic "I Am An American" pregame ceremony. The band knows him simply as Roy Johnson. He came to Purdue in the fall of 1956 as a wide-eyed freshman and he became a member of the All-American Marching Band just a few years after Paul Spotts Emrick, who is credited with creating the Block P as the first marching band formation, retired. Because Johnson had a connection with Emrick's post-retirement from Purdue you can say that his own retirement can reach back to the earliest days of modern college marching bands in 1907. Through his own work, Johnson has been part of the Purdue family for 60 years.

Of course, Roy has earned himself his own Profile in Badassery.

Sunday evening I reached out to the Purdue Bands to try and speak with Roy in advance of the special halftime show that will honor him this week against Illinois. Roy was kind enough to answer a few questions, but first, here are some interesting facts from his 60-year involvement with the All-American Marching Band:

  • Roy graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering Sciences in June of 1960.
  • He earned a Master of Science in Aeronautical Engineering two years later in 1962.
  • In 1960 he began teaching at Purdue as a graduate assistant and continued grad school until 1966 when he passed his PhD prelims.
  • In the fall of 1966 he began working for the Office of the Registrar, where he supervised Academic Records until retiring in 1999. He would eventually receive the Presidential Medal for his service from President Beering at his final commencement.
  • Roy is most well known for his involvement with the band, which began in the fall of 1956 when he joined and pushed the Big Bass Drum as a freshman. He then marched clarinet for two years before serving as an Executive Officer as a senior.
  • Over his many years he would play with the symphonic band and eventually serve as an assistant director. When Spotts Emrick passed away in 1965 he went to his home outside of Rochester and brought many of his musical scores to bring some back to the Purdue Band library.
  • He led the basketball band during the dedication game at Mackey Arena.
  • He conducted the symphonic band for 138 performances, including at Radio City Music Hall.
  • Over his many years with the Band he has traveled to South America, China, Ireland, and Colombia, plus both Rose Bowls.
  • He was an assistant conductor during the 1967 Rose Bowl, and for every other bowl game he has been the band's announcer.

Since 1973 Roy has served the Voice of the All-American Marching Band, and this is his 43rd and final season. His most iconic moments have been his reading of "I Am An American" before every home football game and in any game where Purdue is asked to do the pregame ceremony and National Anthem. To me, nothing says "Purdue Football" like "I Am An American. The tradition started in 1966 and will continue after Roy retires, but he is the tradition at this point. It is no surprise that it was the focus of our Q&A:

T-Mill: You have seen so much at Purdue in 60 years. What is your favorite memory?

Roy: In my 60 years with Purdue, there are so many special memories, but one that stands out is the wonderful convocation in Mackey Arena honoring Neil Armstrong following his lunar flight.  The electricity in the crowd was amazing and it really did point out that there is no limit to what people, and Boilermakers in particular, can achieve.

T-Mill: How did you become the announcer?

Roy: I had been associated with the band department since my freshman year in 1956.  Later, I served as assistant director in the department from 1966 to 1970.  During that period, I had been announcing for the indoor concerts by various department ensembles and continued to do so after I took a position in the Office of the Registrar.  When the gentleman who was announcing for the "All-American" Marching Band left the community in 1973, Al Wright asked me if I would be willing to take on that responsibility since I was no longer conducting on the field with him.  I jumped at the chance, little knowing that it would lead to a 43 year career in the position.

T-Mill: Two of my favorite memories of you reading "I Am An American" were in consecutive games: the 2001 Rose Bowl and the 2001 home opener again Akron, which was just after 9/11. What can you say about those readings, especially the 9/11 which was so emotional?

Roy: By the time Purdue went to the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2000 football season, "I Am An American" had already been a fixture at Purdue home games for 35 years. Awareness of the tradition was limited to our local fans and those visiting with the teams we played, but going to the Rose Bowl brought it to the attention of football fans nationwide.  It was so exciting to share it with everyone in attendance at the Rose Bowl and watching on television.  It demonstrated the patriotism that all of us in the Purdue family share.

The second special memory was reciting it at our first home game following 9/11.  Sitting in the PA booth, looking down at the field which was ringed in red, white and blue, seeing all the American flags flying from the flag poles around the stadium and all of the small American flags fans were waving in the stands literally brought tears to my eyes.  It was really a challenge for me to get through the reading.

When I reached the final "I Am An American" and heard the crowd shout those same words in unison with me, it was evident that the reading meant much more to them than just a routine flag-raising ceremony.  It was an opportunity for them to bust out of the fear that had gripped the nation since that terrible day and reaffirm that we were a strong nation that was not going to give in to terrorists.  How proud everyone was that afternoon!

T-Mill: What do you think you will miss the most about Purdue?

Roy: Actually, we'll be staying in the Purdue community, attending athletic events, convocations, university events, and so on.  But I will miss the direct contact with students that I've had over the past 60 years.  We always enjoy having students in our home and will continue to do that, although our contacts with them will be somewhat reduced.

T-Mill: Are there any insights you would leave behind for incoming students or recent alumni?

Roy: Purdue is a great educational institution and offers a tremendous education to those who are willing to put in the effort to earn it.  My advice would be to think big, don't be afraid to go out on a limb, and be willing to make some mistakes along the way.  Always try to learn from the mistakes as they are the road to self-improvement.

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I am not alone in wishing Roy the best in his retirement. It has been an honor to grow up with him as a Purdue fan and have my son be part of a third generation that has seen him as an important part of fall Saturdays in West Lafayette. I want to thank him for being a true Boilermaker and member of the Purdue family for 60 years and counting now. His final "I Am An American" on November 28th before the Indiana game will be a special one for sure.