BLACKSBURG — It was an ordinary rehearsal for The Marching Virginians last fall.
The 330-member band was on the practice field, playing their songs, marching in step. High above, Dave McKee was watching every move. Analyzing every step.
Suddenly, the band director saw something he needed to correct.
He began shouting, halting the band mid-song. He pointed at the Blacksburg horizon over his shoulder.
It was sunset. It was beautiful.
“He just stopped us and made us look at it,” said Lauren Beard, a rising senior trombone player in The Marching Virginians. “He wanted to share with us what our community was. That’s just how he is.”
McKee wanted to share the beauty of Blacksburg. He wanted to show the band members why they play, why they march. It was an opportunity — one of many — for McKee to illustrate the importance of helping others feel special. He said he’s stopped many practice sessions to watch the sunset over Brush Mountain.
It’s the type of action generations of Marching Virginians have come to expect of the band director who officially retires Saturday after 32 years leading Tech’s band.
And that action shines through in everything the 64-year-old does. He’s having fun with band members one minute, building a culture where making music is enjoyable. The next he’s being serious, making sure marchers hit their marks in an effort to put on the best show for his community.
It wasn’t like McKee ever intended to create Saturday traditions for Tech fans and put an infrastructure footprint on Tech’s campus with a new band training complex. It all happened because McKee or someone else had an idea and he just took swift action to implement it, he said.
“The best things in life happen by accident,” McKee said.
And those accidents — which are really accidental successes — have come about because of the people who McKee worked with in Marching Virginians. A group of players who are ingrained in Tech’s campus culture, mostly thanks to the work of McKee, generations of band members and supporters say.
He’s quick to deflect credit.
“It’s been a joy,” McKee said. “It’s been a thrill. But it’s always been about the people. The people made this band what it is.”
A lengthy career
McKee didn’t march in a college band.
The Lynchburg native went to college at Shenandoah Conservatory where he honed his skills as a percussionist. After college, he bounced around a few jobs. He was a high school band director in Westmoreland, Tennessee, and Loudoun County, Virginia, and even spent a short time as an insurance salesman. He said he hated that job.
In 1984 he moved with his wife Charlotte to Blacksburg to pursue their master’s degrees at Tech. He took on a role as a graduate assistant for the band. In 1986 upon getting that degree, he was asked to lead the band for what would be the final season of football coach Bill Dooley. The next year a young coach Frank Beamer would take over as head coach of the Hokie football squad.
As Beamer’s football team improved, so did the band. Their growth and support went hand in hand, the former coach said.
“We depended on Dave and the band for producing what we did on Saturdays,” Beamer said. “I really respected the job he did. The overall atmosphere of the band was always have fun, be professional and be good.”
McKee always had the band playing the perfect song at the perfect time, Beamer said.
The Marching Virginians were also creators of tradition. It was the Marching Virginians who were the first to start jumping to “Enter Sandman” as part of the football team’s entrance into Lane Stadium, McKee said. And it was McKee who encouraged them to keep doing it.
“Dave and the Marching Virginians have created the soundtrack at Lane Stadium for generations,” said Bill Roth, longtime voice of the Hokies who now works as a communications professor at Tech. “And some of the best players to ever perform in Lane Stadium played for The Marching Virginians.”
Bowl games gave the band more and more exposure, culminating with playing Tech’s BCS national title appearance in 2000. But he wasn’t always about being on television. He aimed to make an impression on everyone he met, from security guards to hotel staff the band encountered on trips.
McKee would constantly be doling out baseball caps on these trips to anyone who’d take one as a gift.
People would gravitate toward him and they’d love the attitude of the band.
Beyond national exposure, McKee was always trying to keep the band involved locally. Any time someone from a school or church would request the band play for them, McKee would send who he could. He wanted to ingrain the band in the community and he wanted to serve the university by spreading what good vibes he could, he said.
“This band is very special to a lot of people and it’s special because of him,” said Polly Middleton, Tech’s next band director who previously worked as an associate band director under McKee for five years. “He makes them feel special. What a great impact to have on a place.”
Creating a special feel
Marching Virginians who take part in the band for four years will often end up spending more time with McKee than most other professors on campus.
That’s fine, McKee said. He hopes they’re learning a lot about teamwork for the real world.
“This is the greatest group project on this campus,” McKee said. “This is a life group project.”
And it’s a group activity that keeps people involved long after they graduate, said Sarah McHugh, a former flagger with the band who is now its flag instructor when she’s away from her day job as a human relations systems manager for Blacksburg’s HHHunt.
McHugh graduated from Tech in 2005 after she was in the band for all four years of college. She moved to Northern Virginia, but then came back to Blacksburg after she and her husband grew weary of metropolitan life.
When they moved back she immediately started helping out as an instructor. The decision to do so was just natural, she said.
“He’s built a culture you want to be a part of,” she said.
That culture involves service like raising money for charity or going to events at local schools. It also involves having fun.
But even though he is working with more than 300 students, he can always make his instruction feel personal, McHugh said. That’s because McKee memorizes everyone’s name. He uses a flashcard system, he said.
With that aid, it’s surprising how quickly he can remember someone’s name, current and former band members said.
“I think he has more brain capacity than anyone else,” Beard, the trombone player, said.
He was a guest director for an All District Band when she was a senior at Loudoun County High School. He remembered her name from the moment she introduced herself and said she wanted to attend Virginia Tech.
A home for the Marching Virginians
McKee’s own name will stay on campus at The Marching Virginians Center. It’s the Sochinski-McKee practice facility.
The practice facility got a lot of support from a lot of people after years of lobbying, McKee said. From former Tech president Charles Steger to the university’s Board of Visitors, which ultimately named it after him in 2016.
The $4.75 million facility features an artificial turf practice field, an instrument storage facility, pavilion and restrooms. The complex near Chicken Hill is a hub for all things Marching Virginians.
It’s a far cry from what the band had before: a spread -out existence across campus. During the season, band members would keep their instruments in their trunks. During the offseason, much of the band’s equipment was stored in a shared facility with Tech’s baseball team where things would get covered in dust and muck.
McKee said the band practiced wherever it could find space — the far side of recreation fields, inside the Hokie track, shoehorned into the Squires Student Center recital salon, under Lane Stadium, in classroom auditoriums and in the back gym of Cassell Coliseum.
The new practice facility has prepped the Marching Virginians for success for generations to come, Middleton, McKee’s successor, said.
But it’s not as important as the folks who’ve built the Marching Virginians into what the band is today, the pair said.
“It’s the people that make the difference, not the facilities, not the instruments,” McKee said.
On Saturday, McKee said he is going kayaking.
Monday, he said he’s planning to take care of some retiree paperwork on campus.
Beyond that, he doesn’t have much in the works.
He does know one thing: He won’t be attending many Virginia Tech games. In fact, he’ll probably take the year off.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what you can do on a Saturday in the fall around here,” McKee said.
Other than Hokie football games, McKee hasn’t gotten to experience much local weekend culture during a Blacksburg fall, he said.
Middleton said he better get ready for calls seeking advice. After all he’s laid a great foundation, she said.
“Dave did such a good job of establishing a great tradition for the band,” Middleton said. “He was such a great influence… I learned so much from him about being a good teacher.”
Middleton, who left her role as assistant band director at Tech to take director jobs at Arkansas State and Illinois State , said she always had her eye on coming back to Blacksburg because of that culture.
McKee said he plans to be hands off with his influence on the band. He predicted Middleton would take the band “to the next level, whatever that is.”
Middleton said she’ll do something new. She has to.
“There’s no substitute for Dave,” she said. “There’s nobody who can fill that void.”
McHugh predicted great things and fun new traditions for the Marching Virginians. And even though he won’t have a direct hand in anything new, every future Marching Virginians development will have McKee’s fingerprints on them.
“It’s going to be different,” McHugh said. “But he’s built so much of who we are. So we’re going to miss him, but he’ll be here with us, even if he’s sitting on his deck while we’re sweating on game day.”