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Most anyone living in Rockford over the last 30 years has seen or heard of the Phantom Regiment Drum and Bugle Corps. They have been National Champions twice and have made the National Finals every year since the 70’s. However, from the late 50’s until the early 70’s, Rockford had a second drum and bugle corps called the Purple Knights.
The Purple Knights grew out of a drum corps that formed at the old St. Thomas Catholic High School in the mid 1950’s. The corps, then known as the St. Thomas Crusaders, had an all female color guard, and since St. Thomas High School was an all boy’s school, the guard members came from Rockford’s all girls’ catholic high school, Muldoon. After St. Thomas was closed and the new coed Boylan High School opened, there was a move to keep the drum corps going. Crusader drum major Robin Ford, the son of a local insurance man, Carol Ford, led the drive. Ford was a leading booster of the school's drum corps. The senior Ford, hating to see the corps dissolve, led a successful drive to preserve the musical group. Donations were sought to finance purchase of the Crusader instruments, uniforms and equipment to create what would be called the Rockford Purple Knights drum and bugle corps. In 1960, a feeder corps to the Purple Knights, known as the Purple Knights Squires, was also formed. Most of the drum and bugle corps activity of that time was sanctioned by the VFW or American legion and Rockford’s Ross-Pearson Post of the VFW became its sponsor.
The Purple Knights came out of the blocks strong, finishing in the top 15 at the VFW National Finals in 1962. That year also found the Phantom Regiment finishing in the top 15 as well. Two corps members competing in individual competition at Nationals that year also shined. In the male dominated drum lines, the Knights female tenor drummer, Sandy Stone, won the National Tenor Drum Championship in 1962 and snare drummer, Bob Churchill finished third in the snare drum category.
By 1963, the corps lost many of the old members from the Crusaders as they “aged out” and in 1964 the corps briefly disbanded. Several members of the Knights then went over to the Phantom Regiment in order to keep marching. However, in late 1964, Rockford businessmen Harry Pozzi and Bob Johnson reformed the Purple Knights as a parade corps. This was a difficult process because most of the city high school band director’s did not want their members in drum corps. In fact in the 1965 Memorial Day Parade in Rockford, all city high school band members were required to march. The Knights, wanting to show off their new corps and look but having many high school band members, petitioned the parade organizers to allow them to be the last unit in the parade. Parents and boosters would pick up members from the high school bands at the end of the parade route and shuttle them back to the beginning of the parade route so they could also march in the Purple Knights. It made for an interesting look as you had corps members in their new uniforms and corps members that were also in their high school bands, still dressed in their school’s uniforms.
By 1965, most of the members that had left to join the Phantom Regiment came back. The new corps held fund raisers for new uniforms and instruments and it progressed back into the competitive ranks quickly. During the period of 1966 to 1968, the corps won several contests, including winning at the prestigious South Milwaukee Competition, one of the oldest contests of the era. They also competed both on the state and national level. During that same time the Knights once again produced some outstanding individual competitors. Snare drummer Dan Drolsum and Base/Baritone Dave Lindberg, both finished in the top 8 at the National Competition in 1966 in New York City. The Knights brass quartet placed second in the state that same year.
By the late 1960’s, the Knights once again had a great deal of it’s members begin to “age out” (you could not compete in drum corps past the age of 21) and the corps once again began to decline and disbanded all together in the early 70’s as the Phantom Regiment rose to National prominence.
A couple of final side notes on the history of the Purple Knights. Rockford was still fairly segregated during the 50’s and 60’s, however, the Purple Knights was a melting pot of all races and socio economic classes competing together, traveling together all summer and forming life long friendships. Secondly, because of its support of Chicago Parades and activities, the Purple Knights were the only drum corps outside of Chicago that was allowed to carry the City of Chicago flag in their color guard. It was presented to them in 1962 by the late Mayor Daley. The Knights also carried a white and purple, checkerboard flag. Each square represented a student who died in the tragic “Our Lady of Angels” school fire in Chicago in 1958.
The Purple Knights have a Face Book page entitled “Purple Knights Drum and Bugle Corps Alumni” that has many photos of the corps from the 50’s until the end. We encourage all former members and supporters to visit the page and reconnect.
A guest contribution by our friend David Charles Lindberg
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