Harold Copenhaver sits at his antique typewriter and smiles at a Jonesboro Sun reporter at his home at Jonesboro, Ark., on May 21. (Tami Wynn/Jonesboro Sun via AP)
- Filed Under
JONESBORO, ARK. — Dr. Harold Copenhaver didn’t know what to expect when he auditioned for the Army Air Force Band.
“I knew I’d be drafted, and music was what I loved. So I thought this may be a good opportunity,” said Copenhaver, who was 20 at the time.
He passed the audition and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in April 1942, beginning a career in the military music program that would last more than two decades.
Copenhaver, 91, a retired dean of the College of Fine Arts at Arkansas State University, was informed recently by the band’s unofficial historian, Harry Gleeson, that he is believed to be the last living original member of the Army Air Force Band, now called the U.S. Air Force Band.
Copenhaver was born and raised on a farm in Girard, Kan.
“My mother was a music teacher. My folks gave me the choice of milking cows or practicing piano. So I chose the piano and took piano lessons for 12 to 15 years,” he said.
While in high school, he played French horn.
“I told the band leader I wanted to be in the band. He said ‘What do you want to play?’ I said ‘I don’t know.’ He looked over and said ‘Here play this thing,’ and it was a French horn. I played it ever since.”
He played French horn when he joined the AAFB.
During his first semester at Pittsburg State Teachers College (now Pittsburg State University) in Pittsburg, Kan., he took a civil service exam. He had an opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., working in the War Department, where he made $1,260 a year.
It was at the War Department that he saw a notice that the Army Air Force Band had been increased from 28 to 48 pieces. Copenhaver called the director, who told him to come for an audition.
“There were four bands — the U.S. Marine Band, the U.S. Navy Band, the U.S. Army Band and the U.S. Army Air Force Band. We would rotate jobs at the White House for receptions. We played concerts all over Washington, D.C., and finally all over the world. We were the goodwill ambassadors from the United States,” Copenhaver said.
“We worked daylight, dark and Sundays. I mean we were busy, busy, busy. Weekends were filled with concerts. We were traveling in the United States, as well as all these foreign countries.”
Copenhaver would spend more than 20 years with the U.S. Air Force music program. He performed and conducted concerts on three continents and in more than 20 countries. He served as a musician, commandant of the U.S. Air Force Bandsman School of Music in Washington, commander and conductor of the Air Force Academy Band in Colorado Springs, Colo., and served as chief of bands and music at the Pentagon, in which he was responsible for a total of 75 Air Force Bands.
His time with the program allowed him to “meet a lot of nice people.”
“I met the Queen of England. She had the band play a concert at Buckingham Palace. ... We usually met the heads of states. I met Glenn Miller; he had his band at Bolling Field and rehearsing. He was there for a few weeks. I got to know him. I met with him and went out with him a time or two. He was a fine person.”
He had the opportunity to guest conduct the Vienna Boys Choir during a performance at Olympic Stadium in Berlin.
In addition, Copenhaver performed for Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
“The Kennedys were the most hospitable as far as those particular presidents were concerned. ... In those days, they would usually have refreshments, and they would ask the band to stay and eat the refreshments after the concert,” Copenhaver recalled. “But not Roosevelt. With Roosevelt, you knew that you were the hired help there.”
Copenhaver was also involved in planning the music for the funeral services for Kennedy.
“My boss was out of town that night. It was my responsibility to go to the White House and represent the Air Force music program. We had to decide what band was going to be at the cathedral, what band was going to lead the parade, what band was going to play at the White House. All the major bands were there. ... I led the U.S.A.F. Drum and Bugle Corps at Kennedy’s funeral.”
Copenhaver got to know Nixon while he was serving as vice president.
“I knew Nixon better than any of the rest of them,” he continued. “We were at the Capitol dedicating the Gutenberg Bible, placing it in the rotunda of the Capitol building, and I had a small band there to help with the ceremony. He came by and said ‘Good morning Capt. Copenhaver.’ It was kind of interesting that he would call me by name. And after that, we did several of those kind of appearances. So I always had a little closeness to Nixon.”
While he enjoyed his time with the military music program, he said it wasn’t “all fun and games.”
“One day in Norwich, England, the band was performing an original arrangement of a piece called ‘Three Little Messerschmidts.’ It was kind of a spoof on the German air force. While we were playing it, they strafed the other side of the street where we were playing,”
He also remembers performing in Royal Albert Hall in London.
“There was no heat. We had to play in our big Army overcoats. And, of course, it was during the times of the buzz bombs. They were fine as long as you could hear them. But when the motors stopped that was when you better head for cover because that meant they were coming down.”
While in Nicaragua arranging a tour, Copenhaver heard shots outside his hotel in the middle of the night.
“The attaché called me and said we better get out of the country. They’re having a military coup. We went out to the airport. There was no concrete runway. It was just a field ... and got out of town.”
On one of the European tours, Copenhaver recalled eating “Brussels sprouts, beets and bread without any salt in it for 45 days — the same meal every day, every meal.”
Copenhaver enjoyed the traveling, but there were no first-class accommodations.
“I would ride in whatever transportation I could get. Several times I would leave on a mail plane that would take mail overseas. But I enjoyed that because I could climb up on the sacks of mail and go to sleep.”
He said the band received a camel as a thank-you gift after a performance in Morocco.
“It was my responsibility to get that camel back to the United States,” he recalled, adding that the gift was eventually declined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of a prevalence of hoof and mouth disease in Morocco.
“That was kind of an unusual experience. I had to go tell the people who were our hosts that we were unable to accept the camel.”
Copenhaver retired from the Air Force in 1964 and went on to have a second career in music education. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the American University in Washington. He was a professor of brass at Northeast Missouri State College in Kirksville, before joining ASU as dean of the College of Fine Arts, where he served from 1970-87.
Copenhaver said he is very blessed to have experienced all that he has had in his life.
“I would do it again.”