‘Miracle of Squaw Valley’ -- In 1960, SHHS Band performed at the freezing-cold winter Olympics

‘Miracle of Squaw Valley’ -- In 1960, SHHS Band performed at the freezing-cold winter Olympics

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“The Russians marched right in front of us!” exclaimed Joyce Black as she told about participating in the February 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley as a member of the St. Helena High School Band. How a small band from a small town was part of a worldwide event is a tale still told with awe by those from St. Helena who were there.

In 1959 Leo Bardes, band director, received permission from the St. Helena School Board to audition for a slot in the opening ceremonies of the eighth Winter Olympic Games. The condition was that there be no cost to the district. The Band Boosters Club would raise the money. Director Bardes submitted tape recordings of their spring repertoire, which impressed the committee. The band played “Washington Post March,” “Prelude to Die Meistersingers of Nuremberg” and “Psalm 18” by Benedetto Mariello on their audition tape, which was recorded by George Kovacevic. The Olympic Organizing Committee, headed by Walt Disney, selected all the high school bands and choirs — our band among them.

New uniforms

The Committee sent all the sheet music needed and the band began to practice. Now the band needed uniforms and by January 1960 much of the money to buy them was raised by the Band Boosters. They still needed $800, which the Chamber of Commerce promised to raise. Members walked on Main Street with buckets in hand to collect the last funds needed. The band paraded downtown to promote their cause. The last dollars were donated by St. Helena Rotary.

At last the big day was near. Students decorated their bus “Olympic Bound St. Helena Band” and “Have Band – Will Travel 2 Olympics.”

At 5:30 a.m., Feb. 17, everyone met at St. Helena High School. Members were responsible for their sheet music and for loading their instrument on a truck. A half hour later the bus and truck were on their way. The bus arrived at Squaw Valley for the first rehearsal. Leo Bardes borrowed matching parkas and boots from Santa Rosa Junior College.

After rehearsal, band members boarded the bus for the drive to Reno High School. Dinner was provided by the Olympic Organizing Committee. Musical entertainment followed. Students slept in the gym with mattresses and blankets provided by the Olympics.

Reveille at 6 a.m.

The big day, Feb. 18, arrived with reveille at 6 a.m. for band members to be roused and get dressed. After a breakfast provided by the Olympics, the group boarded their bus. When they reached Truckee, police escorted them the rest of the way to Squaw Valley. After a mostly dry winter with little snow, organizers were worried. But that day started with a typical Sierra snowstorm with blizzard conditions and near-zero temperatures. It had snowed 18 inches and was still snowing when the SHHS band arrived.

A complete dress rehearsal was at 9 a.m. with all the high school bands, choirs and the U.S. Marine Band. Cindy Taylor Hays writes, “We were standing on the ice rink. Again, absolutely freezing. Many of the keys on the instruments froze up — including my saxophone. We practiced and practiced and then went back to our bus for a cold sack lunch. There was a lot of complaining.”

Joyce Black said she had to keep her French horn mouthpiece under her arm to keep it from freezing and sticking to her lips. The drum heads were in danger of cracking.

More than 18,000 spectators inside Blyth Arena and outside by the ice rink huddled in near white-out conditions. The Organizing Committee wanted to move everyone inside the arena, but there was not enough room for them. Even CBS advised that it would be better to “play it safe.” Walt Disney said all of the bands had raised money to attend and practiced for months — it wouldn’t be fair to leave anyone out. The arrival of Vice President Richard Nixon’s party was delayed by the snow.

After an hour delay, the bands marched into the ice arena in formation, peeling off to take their assigned places. The musicians could barely see band director Clarence Sawhill standing on a high platform. (Leo Bardes was a spectator.) The entrance of the athletes (including the Russians) was accompanied by our band and eight others from California and Nevada and a 400-voice choir — all performing “The Parade of the Olympians.”

‘Beautiful, inspiring’

The delegations entered the stadium to a drum roll by Sharon LaPierre, Don Vader, Dolores Huggins, Linda Younggreen Schwafel, Dale and Dave Weidmer, plus other drummers, while the 30 national flags were hoisted. Richard Nixon officially declared the games open.

Linda Younggreen Schwafel said, “ … it was beautiful and inspiring … Karl Malden recited the Olympic Prayer as chimes rang out on the mountain behind us and the choirs sang ‘God of Our Fathers.’”

Then the “Miracle of Squaw Valley” occurred. “Those big dark clouds parted and the shafts of sun came down the mountains in front of us,” wrote Schwafel. She has never forgotten that moment when the clouds parted.

Drum major Ross Coughran remembers, “It was snowing hard and you could hardly see the mass conductor during the ceremony. The bands and choirs performed the original composition ‘These Things Shall Be.’ Then at the last minute when the choir was singing, the clouds broke, the sun came through just as they were releasing pigeons ... it was a glorious sight, along with the voices of the choir carrying through the valley!”

Alpine skiing gold medalist Andrea Lawrence (escorted by eight members of the Ski Patrol carrying the torch) came down the slope. U.S. Speed Skater Ken Henry skated around the skating oval covered in snow and lit the huge Olympic cauldron. Chimes resounded throughout the valley. Popular U.S. figure skater Carol Heiss, who later won the gold medal, recited the Olympic Oath. The combined bands and choirs performed the “Star Spangled Banner.”

As the athletes departed, 30,000 balloons of many colors were released into the sky, amidst the booming of fireworks. As if on cue, five minutes later, the snowstorm resumed with even greater fury. Yet, for the one-hour ceremony, the sun shone brightly over the event.

Cindy Taylor Hays writes, “We were all very proud to have been participants in a very unique event.” Band director Bardes, in his 80s and retired in Oregon, reveled, “I can still see the … torch come gliding into the arena from way high up on the mountain side and the St. Helena Band proudly at attention!”

Return to St. Helena

After the ceremony, students had a little time to look around Squaw Valley, then boarded their bus for the trip home. After stopping in Auburn for dinner, the band arrived in St. Helena after midnight.

Soon after the marching band, led by Coughran and director Bardes paraded down Main Street for everyone to see the new uniforms and to show appreciation for the town’s support.

The band submitted a letter to the Star thanking the community for their donations and support. Supporters were the Band Boosters Club, Chamber of Commerce (trouser campaign), Rotary (bus rental and gloves), Connie Price, Dick Donaldson, and Russ Williams (fundraising). George Kovacevic engineered the audition tape. Bill Hart made a film. Journalists Starr Baldwin and Don Shelhorn were thanked for extensive coverage of the effort.

The California State Legislature congratulated the St. Helena High School Band on the floor of the Assembly on March 15 and honored each one: John Beyers, Joyce Black, Linda Boert, Paula Bohn, Myron Brignoli, Calvin Brush, Kent Cooper, Ross Coughran, Tom Curry, Kitty Fahrig, Gary Fernstrom, Mark Gaffney, Sue Giantvalley, Elaine Hoyt, Dolores Huggins, Karen Johnston, Sharon Kidd, David LaPierre, Sharon LaPierre, Michael Liebig, Bob Magee, Nancy Maliani, Ken McGill, Adolph Miami, Phyllis Michels, Ray Mischkot, Louis Moore, Nick Nagy, Steve Parchim, Bob Patterson, Shirley Penoli, Albert Perez, Sam Perez, Darrell Robertson, Bob Rutherford, Bob Suffia, Shirley Tanaka, Cindy Taylor, Mike Toben, Don Vader, Dale Weidmer, Dave Weidmer, Tim White, and Linda Younggreen.

Mariam Hansen is the research director for the St. Helena Historical Society.

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Related to this story

Napa Valley College (NVC) Performing Arts and This Is My Brave (TIMB) present “This Is My Brave” as part of the NVC Emergence Festival at 2 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 8 at the college. A second performance will be at 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 9 at the St. Helena Performing Arts Center, 465 Main St.

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