by Gary J. Dickelman, DCW staff
Prior to the fall of 2003, the last junior drum and bugle corps to grace the schoolyard at Clinton Avenue and Van Ness Place, Newark, NJ, was the Golden Knights. The corps began in 1946 as the Blessed Sacrament Cadets. The corps later assumed the name “Golden Knights” as it entered field competition in 1952, and it amassed a brilliant record from that point until the corps disbanded in 1972. The corps record includes nine national titles, 19 New Jersey State titles, 11 National Dream wins and the first World Open Championship in 1963.
Since 1972, the schoolyard and basement of Blessed Sacrament school that comprised the corps’ practice areas lay silent of drums and bugles, but not of youngsters, going about the business of being school kids. The city of Newark, NJ, has experienced many challenges over the quickly passing decades, and in many respects a renaissance has ensued with the revitalization of downtown, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and many other signs of inner city rebirth.
But through it all, Blessed Sacrament School has remained an integral part of the city and of the historic church that was built in 1913 and stands as a landmark. Today it enjoys an enrollment waiting list as many parents prefer a parochial school education for their children as an alternative to the inner city public school system.
So why not a drum corps? This question was asked by a group of drum corps veterans, including Carol Hooton (Reilly Raiders and World Drum Corps Hall of Fame), John Demko (alumnus of Blessed Sacrament school and corps), Gus Wilke (Skyliners), Tim O’Brien (Blessed Sacrament) and a host of others, through the early months of 2003.
When approached by this group with the very same question, Dr. Nathaniel L. Potts, principal of Blessed Sacrament School, is reported to have queried, “Where have you been for the past 30 years?” And so the group became the officers and board of trustees of the EXCEL Corporation, a non-profit group dedicated to creating a non-denominational musical unit that serves the youth of the inner city and surrounding communities. The Blessed Sacrament Junior Drum & Bugle Corps was reborn.
The formation of the corps was formally announced during mass on August 31, 2003 at Blessed Sacrament Church. The Blessed Sacrament Junior Drum and Bugle Corps will carry on the tradition — and challenge — that was so eloquently stated by the late Bishop Robert Garner as he assumed the position of corps Moderator as a young priest more than 50 years ago: “A young person who enters this highly competitive sport with the right spirit will one day leave its ranks having gained discipline, stability, loyalty, courage, courtest and leadership. It is the end result which we keep in mind — the building of character.”
Hundreds and hundreds of today’s adults who graced the ranks of the Golden Knights are the embodiment of Garner’s vision. According to the officers and board of trustees, it is time once again for Newark and the Blessed
Sacrament organization to carry on the tradition of building character through drum and bugle corps.
So on what otherwise would have been a typical September “back to school night” that marks the start of the school year, more than 100 members of the Blessed Sacrament Golden Knights alumni corps gathered, in uniform, in the same school yard where dreams came true in terms of Garner’s vision and drum corps legend, and played their hearts and souls out to help launch the new junior corps. It was the first time in decades that many had set foot on Clinton Avenue and Van Ness Place.
The sun was just setting as the silence of dusk was assaulted by the opening chords of El Cid. The 35-minute concert was punctuated quite emotionally by the corps’ signature National Emblem March. Members had traveled from Boston, Canada and other faraway places on this Monday night for the event.
If not for having marched in the original junior corps, it was to experience the magic that was once the best of the best, on its original turf, and to see the rebirth of the dream. At the conclusion of the concert, drum major Art Farrell turned to a young, new members of the junior corps and said, “Now it’s up to you.”
The corps’ instructional staff is donating its time and expertise. A tiered program is underway in which the youngest members learn fifes and drums for the basics, then move up to brass and various stages of the marching arts.
The staff and EXCEL in general have stated that the corps will remain an inner city unit and will foster a grass-roots drum corps activity of excellence throughout the city and surrounding communities that echoes the tradition and spirit of greater Newark drum corps as it was in decades past, but reflecting a bright new future for the activity.
The corps recently acquired a set of instruments from the U.S. Naval Academy Drum & Bugle Corps. Midshipmen delivered the horns to Blessed Sacrament School and to an enthusiastic group of corps members — old and new – on September 27. The corps is accepting further donations of equipment and funds, including music stands, mouthpieces, drum sticks and the like.
A gift registry will be available soon at local music stores for interested donors. Details will be listed in the junior corps section of www.bsgoldenknights.org. A first winter concert is being planned for the holiday season.
Those interested in donating to the corps, please send donations to and/or contact Nathaniel L. Potts, Ed. D., Principal, or John Demko at Blessed Sacrament School, 600 Clinton Avenue, Newark, NJ 07108.