Bob Buckner

Forty years later, the bonds remain strong.

On a June week in 1979, the Sylva-Webster High School Golden Eagle Band stepped onto the field and into the history books when it was named Grand National Champion in Marching Bands of America competition in Wisconsin. (See this week’s History page for details).

Forty years down the road, says Bob Buckner, who directed the S-W band to legendary status before moving on to Western Carolina and doing the same with the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band, many of the band members remain in touch, and the hard work and dedication that went into building a champion continues to pay off in the community.

“In my experience with those students, most all of them are successful,” said Buckner. “They’re civic leaders, community leaders, doctors and dentists and lawyers, and not just from the 1979 group, but from my whole 13 years at Sylva-Webster. We turned out a lot of teachers, a lot of people who figured out how to turn their hard work into something productive. We turned out a lot of good business people, people who knew how to make a plan, stick to it and work hard.’’

Buckner says many members remain in touch. “We’ve actually had two reunions,’’ Buckner said. “I stay in touch with a lot of students, both high school and college. The championship is something they really relate to as one of the most special moments of their lives, even more so as the years go on.

“It taught them that you don’t necessarily have to be from a great big place to do big things.’’

Buckner, 74, says the 1979 feat would be hard to replicate today.

“A lot of it has to do with how much money is put into competition, incredible amounts. We were on a budget, for sure. The first meal we’d eat on a trip would be a picnic. I think we spent $3 per student per night to stay in a dorm (on the championship trip). Everything we did was on a budget.’’

To say the 1979 group got a bang for their buck would be an understatement. “We were probably the smallest school represented to win the title. I was thinking we could compete in the lower class but were competitive for the whole thing. All of us had learned so much about competition that it really did help, and it all kind of came together at a special time.

“It was a major time in my life. I still consider those people my family. In high school you’re mentoring, seeing kids every day, unlike with college kids.’’

After leaving Sylva-Webster Buckner started his own business, “United Music Enterprises,’’ which he’s still engaged with. In the late 1980s Buckner was approached by East Tennessee State University to direct their marching band, and then Western Carolina University. Buckner said he’d noticed some of the top collegiate bands weren’t necessarily from “power conference’’ schools but from smaller institutions, and thought, “We could do that at Western Carolina. I’d been all over the country by that point and had seen some really great bands and some really bad bands, and learned something from all of them.”

Buckner was able to turn to the secret weapon he’d developed in Sylva to build up WCU’s band.

“As in Sylva we had one thing going for us: Students would teach other students. We had this leadership program I expanded at WCU.

“When you delegate leadership and listen to people, they buy into it, take ownership. The lessons I learned at Sylva very definitely played into our success at WCU.

“That program’s going to continue to flourish. Everyone knows about the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band. It’s a great recruiting tool.’’

Buckner is in the North Carolina Band Directors Hall of Fame as well as the Bands of America national Hall of Fame in Indianapolis. He says “I’m still called on to do some guest conducting. My work with Mountain Winds Community Band is really fulfilling. I still play my instrument. I love that contact with music. It adds to my years. I’m fortunate to be healthy. When you get to this age, everything is predicated on whether you can get out of bed in the morning.’’