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UC Berkeley Press Release

Robert Briggs
Robert O. Briggs (Photo courtesy Cal Band Alumni Association)
Beloved Cal Band director emeritus Robert Briggs dies at 81

A campus memorial gathering to celebrate Robert Brigg's life is scheduled for Saturday, October 18, at 2 p.m. in Pauley Ballroom.

– Robert Orlando Briggs, director emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley's storied Cal Band and soft-spoken mentor to generations of UC Berkeley marching band members, died at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center on Wednesday (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. Email 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 a drum major in the 1950s.

A veteran of 24 Big Games who marched in four Rose Bowls, Briggs was the third director of UC Berkeley's student-run marching band, which started out in 1891 as the "University Cadet Band." While a music major at UC Berkeley, Briggs played the cornet in the band in the late 1940s and early 1950s. After serving in the U.S. Army, among other stints, Briggs returned to the campus in 1967 and served as Cal Band assistant director and then director until 1995.

Briggs with Erin Proudfoot and Bob Calonico
Bob Briggs joins Erin Vidali Proudfoot (Alumni Band drum major) and the current Cal Band director, Bob Calonico, for Alumni Band Day in 2004. (Photo courtesy Erin Proudfoot)

With his low-key style, Briggs mentored more than 2,000 student band members and won 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 in the 1970s.

"All of us who performed under his direction 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 added.

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 with newleyweds and classic car
For their 2000 wedding, band alumni Erin Proudfoot and her husband Mark were chauffeured by Briggs in one of his classic cars. (Photo courtesy Erin Proudfoot)
Briggs' life revolved around music and classic automobiles, according to his friends. When the band went co-ed in 1973, and members began marrying one another, he would proudly chauffer brides and grooms to their nuptials in his black Cadillac sedan. His large car collection included a classic Porsche and Corvette.

"He would take me on drives on curvy roads in his Porsche and then insist that I drive, even while reminding me that the car cost more than his house," said Corey Cook, an assistant professor of politics at the University of San Francisco who played trombone in the Cal Band from 1989 to 1993 and served a stint as student director. "He let me borrow his band on occasion and grinned from ear to ear when I experienced the 'chills' he always talked about. He refused to keep those things just for himself."

Briggs was born in Modesto, Calif. on Aug. 20, 1927, the great-grandson of pioneer James Briggs, who cofounded the town. He graduated from Modesto High School and briefly attended Modesto Junior College before entering UC Berkeley in 1947.

Bob Calonico chats with Briggs
Briggs and his successor, Robert Calonico, chat during the 2006 Big Game in Memorial Stadium. (Photo courtesy Tristan Harward)
Briggs joined the Cal Band, played the cornet and took up the French horn. 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, Monterey and Okinawa, Japan. 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, Calif. which he held until 1967 when he returned to UC 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 country'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."

Briggs in the stands among band members
Briggs is saluted for his devotion to Cal at a Golden Bears basketball game. (Photo courtesy Cal Athletics)
"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 at the roar of cheers following 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 Briggs 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.

Bob Briggs
Bob Briggs dons his uniform again for the Louisiana Tech football game in September 2007. (Photo courtesy Tristan Harward)
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.

Additional tributes to Briggs are being posted at the Cal Band Alumni Association website.