Patrick Dangerfield recalls his reaction when he first heard where the Belaire High School marching band was planning to go for its upcoming trip.
“Normandy, France? To a whole other different country? I was in shock,’” recalled the 18-year-old tuba player.
Terrianna Jones, also 18 and also a senior at the Baton Rouge public high school, said the news was energizing. The chance to travel is one of the main reasons this trombone player joined the band, but she never thought it would be a passport to another country. And as for the destination?
“It’s France,” Jones said, her face lighting up. “A lot of people can’t say they’ve been to France. At least not a lot of people in my family.”
Travis Mason, 16 and a junior, is brushing up on his French in preparation: “Bonjour. Comment allez vous? Je m’appelle Travis. C'es toi, comment ça va?”
The occasion is the 73rd anniversary of D-Day on June 6. The band is one of a handful of high school bands invited to perform in this year’s celebration of the 1944 Allied landing into occupied France. Thirty-five members of the band, most of them seniors, are getting the privilege to go.
But first they have to raise the $84,000 to fund the trip. They are planning a series of fundraisers to generate the $25,000 they still need toward that goal. Also, the students are paying $600 apiece, plus the cost of obtaining passports.
The invitation for Belaire High to perform in Normandy arrived in band Director Juvon Pollard’s inbox last May.
“The funny thing is when I got the email, I didn’t take it seriously,” he said.
The email was quickly followed by an official phone call and it was only then that Pollard realized the offer was real.
“From then, we’ve just been pedal to the metal.”
The August floods did not help. While Belaire High School itself was spared, the students were not.
“One hundred percent of our students (in the band) got flooded out,” Pollard said. “They’re living in hotels. They’re just now starting to get back to their homes.”
The man who extended the invitation to Belaire is Earl Hurrey. A retired master gunnery sergeant with the U.S. Marine Corps, Hurrey now helps organize annual military events such as the D-Day and Pearl Harbor commemorations.
Hurrey said he learned about the Belaire band from a retired military officer in Baton Rouge. After doing his own research, Hurrey agreed.
“Every year, I try to invite bands from areas where kids might not have this opportunity to see something of historical significance, to give them a taste of history,” Hurrey said.
The band is scheduled to play at least three times between June 5 and 7, the last at the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. Hurry said the largest event is a parade June 6 at the French village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first village liberated by the American troops.
In addition to performing, the students will see in person all the famous sites, as well as talk to veterans of that historic battle, now in their 90s, who return to France every year to remember.
“(Belaire students) are going to get an incredible history lesson,” Hurrey said. “They will learn far more about WWII history than they’ll ever learn in a classroom.”
Hurrey said he’s not worried whether easily distracted teenagers will be engaged by events that took place more than half century before they were born.
“We get that reaction at the beginning but not that at the end,” Hurrey said. “I’ve never seen a high school band that left France that wasn’t visibly touched by that experience. It literally changes these kids.”
Pollard said the students are doing their part to prepare, noting that in mid-April a historian versed in D-Day agreed to hold a seminar for them.
And the music won’t stop. Belaire has many performances ahead, including three more battle of the bands, the last one out of state in Alabama.
The band also has planned three fundraisers. Two of them are this weekend on the grounds of the high school, at 121121 Tams Drive:
- Battle of the Bands, Saturday at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. The school holds these musical competitions twice a year.
- Celebrity Basketball Game, Sunday at 3 p.m. State Rep. Ted James and Metro Councilwoman Erika Green are organizing rival teams. Tickets are $10.
Also, band supporters are throwing a Royal Gala on April 21 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Southern University’ Royal Cotillion Ballroom. Michael Foster of the Michael Foster Project is set to provide the entertainment. Tickets are $30 in advance, $50 at the door. Organizers are seeking sponsors as well; prices for tables range from $100 bronze level to $2,500 diamond level. The donations are tax deductible.
School Board member Dawn Collins is the lead organizer for the gala.
The band also has set up a Go Fund Me page.