(Erin Proudfoot photo)
‘An outflowing of love’ for the Cal Band’s emeritus director
Robert O. Briggs, dead at 81, ‘understood, nurtured, tolerated, and instructed’ generations of band members
| 24 September 2008
Robert Orlando Briggs, director emeritus of Berkeley’s storied Cal Band and soft-spoken mentor to generations of Berkeley marching-band members, died Sept. 17 of complications from gall-bladder surgery. He was 81.
In the days before Briggs’ death, well-wishers serenaded him in his hospital room with “All Hail Blue and Gold,” among other Cal songs. E-mail tributes and memories flooded inboxes throughout the Cal Band Alumni Association’s loyal and extensive network.
“There’s this outflowing of love that is just beautiful,” said Dan Cheatham, a Cal Band historian and 1950s-era drum major.
A veteran of 24 Big Games who marched in four Rose Bowls, Briggs was the third director of Berkeley’s student-run marching band, which started out in 1891 as the University Cadet Band. A music major at Berkeley, Briggs played the cornet in the band in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He returned to the campus as an employee in 1967 and served until 1995, first as the Cal Band’s assistant director and then its director.
With his low-key style, Briggs mentored more than 2,000 band members, winning their loyalty and respect. “Bob was always understated in his exuberance, so when he got outwardly excited, you knew it was a special moment,” said Barbara Goodson, president of the Cal Band Alumni Association, who played the mellophone under Briggs’ direction in the 1970s.
“All of us remember the end of at least one halftime show where Bob would raise both arms high in the air, giving us the ‘thumbs up’ with a huge grin on his face,” she recalled.
In 1994, as Briggs prepared to hand over the baton to Bob Calonico, the present Cal Band director, he told the San Francisco Examiner: “It’s going to be weird to go to a football game and just sit there.” But the music never stopped for Briggs, who served as conductor of the Solano Winds music ensemble in his hometown of Fairfield almost until his death.
Briggs was born in Modesto on Aug. 20, 1927, the great-grandson of pioneer James Briggs, who co-founded the town. He graduated from Modesto High School and briefly attended Modesto Junior College before entering Berkeley in 1947.
In addition to playing cornet in the Cal Band, Briggs took up the French horn as a music major. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music in 1951, he joined the U.S. Army and served in the Korean War, leading U.S. Army bands at Ford Ord and Okinawa. Later, he earned a master’s degree in music from San Francisco State University.
After his military service he landed the post of band director of Armijo High School in Fairfield, which he held until 1967, when he returned to Berkeley to assist Cal Band director James Berdahl. When Berdahl took a leave of absence in 1971, Briggs filled in as acting director before being officially appointed Cal Band director in 1973.
During Briggs’ 24-year tenure, the Cal Band admitted women for the first time, toured the United States in honor of the nation’s 1976 bicentennial, and played for Queen Elizabeth II during her 1983 visit to San Francisco. Over time his leadership style became less formal, with his students calling him “Bob” instead of “Mr. Briggs.”
“Bob was one of the band, but it wasn’t like he had lowered himself to ‘kid level.’ Rather, he treated us as his peers,” said Matt Parfit, an information-technology analyst who played trombone in the Cal Band during the 1980s. “We stepped up and quickly gained confidence in what we could do, and embraced the idea of working with somebody outside our age group who actually looked us in the eye and listened.”
On its centennial in 1991, the Cal Band received the Berkeley Citation, the campus’s highest honor. A year later, Briggs thrilled to the cheers that greeted the Cal Band’s rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at a Cal-UCLA game.
“A band is a lot like a football team,” he told the San Francisco Examiner in 1994. “There’s a point where everything comes together, everything is in sync, and you just start to click.”
When Briggs stepped down in 1995, then-UC President Jack Peltason gave him the unique title of “Director Emeritus of the University of California Band.” He also received a Golden Bear Award from then-Athletic Director John Kasser.
Back in Fairfield, Briggs started the Solano Winds ensemble, which he conducted until this summer, when he underwent gall-bladder surgery. Medical complications sent him to UCSF in mid-August. As his condition worsened, those who knew him began to share happier memories of Briggs, sensing the end was close.
“Bob understood. Bob nurtured. Bob tolerated. Bob instructed,” said David Tanabe, a drum major in the 1980s and now an archivist for the state of Hawaii. “My ideals of teamwork, leadership, competency, dedication, integrity, and honesty were framed at Cal and in large part by the man. The University of California Marching Band was always under the direction of Robert O. Briggs.”
Briggs is survived by his sister-in-law, Jewel Briggs; nieces JoLynne Briggs and Judy Vina; nephew Jeff Briggs; and his vast Cal Band family. Plans for a memorial gathering to celebrate Briggs’ life and achievements are pending. To keep posted, visit the Cal Band Alumni Association website (www.calband.berkeley.edu/calband/cbaa).