A conversation with Colts’ Director Greg Orwoll

by Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher

The Colts have had a strong drum and bugle corps program for nearly 40 years. Greg Orwoll has been a major reason behind the organization’s success for half its existence, since assuming the reigns from Jim Mason following the 1984 season.

One of the things that has always struck me as particularly interesting about his tenure is the fact that his corps is probably the single most well-known drum and bugle corps in their own community that currently exists in the activity. He spends tremendous energy making sure that Dubuque, IA, sees the corps and supports the corps in order to keep it successfully on the road each summer.

Steve Vickers: Greg, right off the bat, tell me how you got started in the activity. It was in Decorah, IA, with the Decorah Kilties, wasn’t it? And didn’t you age-out with the Cavaliers?

Greg Orwoll: I grew up across the street from the school at which the Kilties practiced. At the time they were a parade corps, and it so happened the point they turned around in the street with this cool counter march was at my house. I remember every Tuesday and Thursday evening watching it and knowing that this was for me, even at age 6. It seemed a lifetime before I was old enough to join. I learned to play the soprano bugle by rote and found I had some affinity for it.

My mother got involved as a very active volunteer and that really got the hook set. We didn’t know much about the larger drum corps activity from inside our parade corps until one day in 1972, when the Osage Precisionnaires appeared in our annual Nordic Fest Parade and performed a concert in the court house square. I still remember the chill down the spine when I heard them play, and yes, I’m Norwegian.

When I aged out of the Kilties at age 14, I became an instructor and began arranging the music. In 1974, I joined the Precisionnaires and marched with them through their last season in 1976. I became the director of the Kilties my senior year in high school and continued while I attended Luther College in Decorah.

I was a fan while directing the Kilties, never missing the DCI Whitewater show, and dragging college friends along with me. In February 1979, while looking through the DCI program, it dawned on me that this was my age-out year.

I assumed the top corps were full, so I called the best corps I thought might still have room. I called the person listed for the Guardsmen, Scotty Wild, who was by then with the Cavaliers. He invited me to Park Ridge instead and I was a “rook out” in the Cavaliers in 1979.

I returned to Decorah and started a non-profit group to sponsor a drum corps show in my hometown. The show ran three years and in the process Sam McCormick, the director of the Rivermen in Minnesota, was impressed with this young turk, and came to my show and handed me a plane ticket to join them on tour in a week. Jim Mason noticed my work there and brought me to Dubuque in 1982 on his visual staff.

SV: I know you’ve always been proud of the fact that the corps represents Iowa. In fact, the Governor of Iowa has declared the corps as the state’s official ambassadors for quite a number of years in a row, dating back into the 1970s. What kind of relatively local membership do you have in the corps, say within a three-hour drive? And how far afield do you draw young people?

GO: The “Iowa’s Ambassadors of Music” proclamation was the first big “coup” I had as director in 1985. I met soon-to-be-Governor Terry Branstad while he was campaigning for his first term and discussed the idea with him. He liked it, and early in his first term he made a presentation to us in person. I still have the picture of our shaking hands at the presentation. He looked a lot younger then. He ended up    serving four terms, so we got 16 years out of that. It really opened some credibility doors.

Our members come from all over like everyone else, but whenever possible we place a priority on local and Iowa members. Forty percent or more of our members are from Iowa or within a four-hour drive of Dubuque. Our goal is to have 50% from Iowa, but that is more difficult all the time with the lack of competitive winter guard and winter percussion programs here. It snows in October, so the marching seasons, and the level of training, are limited.

We include color guard in winter camps so Iowa kids who don’t have access to winter guard have a chance. Winter guard kids don’t attend, but this way everyone is spinning all winter and we can have kids from around here in the guard.

SV: You make a very concerted effort to perform numerous times during the year in Duquque. What’s a typical year like and what types of appearances will you do in 2004?

GO: It is critical that we are visible in our community. Otherwise, we would not have any where near the local support we have. It is also our obligation to support events in Dubuque. It helps, too, that Dubuque is a small city with a strong sense of community. . .

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