Harvard — and drum corps — graduate lands special position at Disney Company

by Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher

Dane Skillrud graduated this spring from Harvard University. He spent a couple of years marching in Capital Sound from Madison, WI. His success at one of America’s top universities — and in landing a very special job he’ll start this summer — is due, in part, to his involvement in the drum and bugle corps activity.

I met his parents, Dana and John, a year and a half ago when they sat next to me at a Broadway touring show at the   brand-new Overture Center for the Performing Arts here in Madison. Over the course of six or seven productions, we talked about a variety of topics, including our common interest in movie and Broadway musicals. In one of those                  conversations, Dana asked me what I did for a living. After telling her I make a living doing my hobby, it turned out that Dane, their youngest son, marched with Capital Sound several years ago.

Dana and John have had seats next to me again this winter, and in January, at “Thoroughly Modern Millie”, they told me Dane was about to graduate from Harvard, that he had been successful in getting a “dream” job with Disney and that his experiences at college and in preparation for moving into the “real” world had been influenced by drum corps.

I inquired if they thought Dane would be willing to be interviewed, they put me in touch with him via e-mail and here you have our conversation!

Steve Vickers: You must have started out in school band. Did you find out about the corps and join on your own or were you recruited?

Dane Skillrud: Keith Gee, who was the director of Capital Sound at the time, did a presentation to our school band when I was in eighth grade. I was only 13 at the time and thought that drum and bugle corps might be something I could enjoy and do well at.

My good friend, Chris Dalton, decided to join, too. His parents actually met in drum corps and their support helped add fuel to the fire.

SV: What years did you march?

DS: I marched during the summers of 1998 and 1999. I started as a second soprano and moved to lead mellophone the following year.

I was the youngest member in 1998 at only 13 and I don’t think I actually should have been allowed to march. However, my mother talked to Keith Gee and convinced him to let me in.

At DCI in 1998, they had the youngest member of each corps out on the field for a ceremony, but I wasn’t allowed to go because I was too young.

SV: What was your experience like, traveling and competing with Capital Sound during years when the corps was competing in division II?

DS: The experience was unbelievable. Traveling was something that I had never done without my family, so it was a life-altering experience to begin exploring the country when I was only 13. I remember the first time I saw mountains was driving through West Virginia on our way down to DCI in 1998. It was 2:30 AM and I couldn’t fall asleep because the view was so incredible.

Needless to say, I paid for that the next day on the field, but I think it was worth it. To this day, I can still fall asleep anywhere, anytime if I try to. It’s amazing what sleeping on gym floors or crammed onto a bus can teach you about yourself and how to adapt. Also, being the youngest guy in the corps, I couldn’t perform or behave like I was the youngest.

The competitive aspect of corps was a driving force. It was really what kept me focused. I always felt that, despite being only one person on the field, I needed to be perfect.

During my first year in corps, we won Drum Corps Midwest, marking the first major competition the corps won in its history.

SV: Were there any specific individuals that were an inspiration, or was it the whole experience that kept you involved?

DS: The mellophone hornline leader, Dan Ritacco, really kept me personally motivated. I really felt he knew so much about performing and horn technique. My buddy, Chris Dalton, was also my rock. We did it together. The whole experience was incredible, but if I had to pick a couple of people, it would be Chris and Dan.

SV: You didn’t age-out, did you?

DS: No, I didn’t. I continued to play trumpet competitively and casually throughout high school, but it was never the same.

SV: No doubt your acceptance at Harvard played a role in your not being able to march until you were 21. Any regrets?

DS (laughter): I don’t regret going to Harvard, if that’s what you mean. I don’t have any regrets about going inactive when I did. I feel that drum corps really gave me several of the skills I needed to do well. Other opportunities presented themselves and I took them.

I just turned 21 this last October and I remember thinking, “Well, I guess I can’t join corps anymore.” I still think about it from time to time. But no, no regrets. I can say that I know for a fact that participating in drum corps helped me get into school here.

SV: Have you had a chance to get to any shows since you left the corps?

DS: I went to DCI when it was in Madison a few years ago and “Drums on Parade”. I still receive some publications and also check out the Web sites to keep up with it. I wanted to be back in Madison this summer for DCI, but I’m not sure if it is going to work out.

SV: Can you tell me any particular attributes about the drum and bugle corps experience that have helped you along the way?

DS: The biggest lesson was learning pure discipline. I felt that, at 13, there was really nothing better that could have happened to me. I was whipped into shape, both mentally and physically. I learned to be more self-reliant, but to not be afraid of asking for help if I needed it. Finally, I learned the smallest things make the biggest difference.

The difference between a great show and a good show was hitting a couple more notes or rolling your feet more effectively. This stuff was all just details. However, nobody ever won a competition by just doing the big things right.

SV: Tell me about how you wound up finding about the Disney job opportunity?

DS: Harvard has an extensive on-campus recruiting program that literally hundreds of employers go through to gain access to students. After a company approaches Harvard, the position is placed on Harvard’s e-recruiting Web site and students can apply from there. After that, businesses review your information and offer interviews.

SV: I understand you were one of several hundred applicants? How many finalists were interviewed for the position?

DS: This year, and as far as I know in several other years, Disney has only recruited at Harvard, Princeton and Stanford. Approximately 130 students applied specifically from Harvard. In total, around 500 applied from all three schools.

At Harvard, about 25 were accepted for first-round interviews and around 12 for the second round. The final round, which took place in Burbank, CA, at their corporate offices, had eight total finalists from the three schools.

SV: What was it like finding out you topped all those individuals to get the job?

DS: I don’t know if ‘topped’ is the right word for it. Everyone in the final round was an incredible person and I am sure will do amazing things. I cannot even begin to articulate how amazing a feeling it was to get the job. There was a lot of jumping, cheering and perhaps a little partying to celebrate.

SV: What does this special group of individuals do for the company?

DS: Its official name is the Corporate Strategy, Business Development and Technology Group. It has around 20 professionals in the office, who act as in-house consultants/strategists/investment bankers, responsible for the identification, analysis and development of strategic initiatives such as evaluating and negotiating acquisitions and joint ventures, developing new businesses and fostering corporate growth. That’s what the group does.

I will be on the bottom of the totem pole, of course, just trying to add whatever I can. The people in the office are incredible and I am incredibly excited to work with and learn from them.

SV: What do you envision bringing to the new position that you learned in the drum corps activity?

DS: I would have to say my attention to detail. As I mentioned before, drum corps is incredibly meticulous and the little things make all the difference. I actually hope to help work, if they’ll let me, on “Magic Music Days”. Disney gives its employees numerous opportunities to volunteer with the multitudes of activities it sponsors and encourages them to do so.

SV: You’ll be moving west to Los Angeles this spring. That will be quite a change from Cambridge, MA. You have to be excited about the future. How does it feel to be starting such a prestigious position?

DS: I feel very lucky and privileged. I have never gotten anywhere without the love and support of my parents and brothers. I will never go anywhere without them either. They have been the most supportive, but there have always been people along the way who have just given me a chance.

Had Keith Gee not allowed my mother to convince him to let me join, who knows if I would be here today? It feels wonderful to be starting with such an incredible group and company.

SV: Thanks, Dane, for taking the time to talk with me. Anything else you’d like to add?

DS: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I have so much respect for the drum corps community. I actually have the most respect for those who continue to support corps by doing all the behind-the-scenes work.

Corps would be aimless without people there willing to squirt water in your mouth during a 5-mile, 90-degree parade in Grand Rapids. It was really great talking with you.

SV: Good luck in LA and with your new job. I hope you’ll be able to get away and catch the DCI Championships at the Rose Bowl in August 2007, if not in Madison this summer!