When Spencer Childers decided to attend Western Carolina University four years ago, he couldn’t possibly anticipate the roller coaster ride he would take, including ending his last semester at home away from his campus community and friends. He also never anticipated being named drum major for the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band as a rising sophomore or leading the same band in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Needless to say, Childers has made the most of his time at WCU.
For Childers, his path to WCU began like many other students’ -- as a member of a high school marching band. As a high school junior, he traveled to Enka, North Carolina, to compete at the Land of the Sky Marching Festival, where he saw the Pride of the Mountains for the very first time. It got his attention and he quickly added WCU to his list of possible schools. After a successful audition and a visit to Cullowhee, Spencer knew his choice was clear. “Everyone at Western was so welcoming,” he said. “Touring the campus and seeing how beautiful it was, that’s what really drew me in.”
For music education majors like Childers, two years of marching band are required to earn a degree. It quickly became apparent to him that the Pride of the Mountains was going to be much more than just a class requirement. He spent his rookie season marching trumpet, but knew that he wanted to play a bigger role, and that’s when drum major auditions rolled around.
In a band of 500 hundred members, the Pride of the Mountains’ four drum major spots are easily the most coveted. They are the face of the program. They spend countless hours behind the scenes helping the band directors execute a flawless season for not only the students, but the fans as well. Earning one of these positions is not for the faint of heart, but lucky for Spencer, he wasn’t easily intimidated.
After surviving multiple rounds of auditions in front of his peers, the time came to find out who would make the cut. The annual band banquet is always a momentous occasion to cap off a successful marching band season. And while it is full of reflection on the season past, it is also a glimpse into the future of the program. Spencer went into the evening as one of four candidates for only two spots. He asked his mom to join him at the banquet to support him in case he didn’t get the position, an assumption he made because he was a freshman.
But when David Starnes, WCU’s director of athletic bands, announced the band’s next leaders -- Spencer’s name was called. “Spencer was someone who we recognized as a talented trumpet player, a responsible freshman member, and a young man who stood out, based on the respect and character he demonstrated,” said Starnes. “What we weren’t prepared for was his ability on the podium as a conductor. There are those auditions that you are simply not prepared for, being that the individual elevates their performance and is absolutely undeniable.”
Leading one of the nation’s largest marching bands would bring an entirely new experience for Childers. Whether it was learning the ropes from his mentor, Taylor Andrews, or leading the Pride of the Mountains during one of the largest marching band competitions in the country, Spencer was immersed in experiential learning unlike any other he could have envisioned. “I learned a lot from the directors,” said Childers. “I feel more ready for my future positions than I maybe would have if I’d stayed a trumpet player.”
To top it all off, in April 2018, the Pride of the Mountains learned they would once again represent North Carolina in the 2019 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, just five years after their debut performance. That meant he would end his collegiate band career by marching in one of the most-watched events in the world, and it didn’t disappoint. Millions of people from around the world lined the streets of New York City or tuned in to NBC to witness Spencer lead the Pride of the Mountains through Heralds Square. “Thinking about the thousands and thousands of people on the sidewalk, shoulder to shoulder, that would not have been acceptable now,” said Childers. “I am very thankful that after all that preparation, the band members still got to experience that.”
Three months later the world flipped upside down: COVID-19 struck. What was supposed to be a spring semester of student teaching and celebrating a lifelong accomplishment turned into online education and a delayed commencement ceremony. “My mom called me in tears,” he said, after she heard the news that commencement wouldn’t be happening in May. “For me, I really wanted to walk across the stage for my family and my friends because they’ve really been the ones who have helped me to get to where I am.”
For most students, walking across the stage at commencement is the single most important day of their young lives. But instead of dwelling on what won’t be, he is thankful that university leaders are putting their students’ health first. “It really is the best decision for us right now,” he said. “I think we all should be thankful that we have good people leading the university and making sure that we’re all going to stay safe.”
And while his senior year didn’t end the way he thought it would, he knows he made the most of his four years at Western Carolina University. “It really was, for me, the best time of my life.”