Towson Marching Generals provide soundtrack for Olympic celebration

On an afternoon earmarked for those who wore the red, white, and blue in the London Olympics and fans in Ravens' purple, the maroon and black of Towson High School was also prevalent at Monday's ceremony to honor Rodgers Forge native Michael Phelps and the rest of Maryland's Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

The Towson High School Marching Generals performed both before and during the ceremony at the Inner Harbor Amphitheatre in downtown Baltimore, while the Silk Line flag girls flanked an audience that included school administrators and Phelps' former teachers.

"This is really exciting," Alex Della Santina, a senior co-drum major of the marching band, said as they prepped for their performance. "We've performed at Disney before, but we get to do something our hometown is proud of."

The current edition of the band has performed at all three of Phelps' return celebrations, and like the Olympian himself, has come a long way over the years.

Principal Jane Barranger said that director David Rhen had just reestablished the band after a 13-year hiatus when Phelps returned from Athens.

"We didn't even have uniforms," Barranger said. Ultimately, the alumni association bought t-shirts that read Fighting Generals across the front—a far cry from the sleek maroon and black uniforms they wore Monday.

"We've come a long way," she said.

Beginning 30 minutes before Phelps and the Olympians crossed the harbor on the Pride of Baltimore II, the band began to play songs from its appropriately-themed show.

"Our show this year is called 'We're an American band,' so we had some songs that fit with the 200th anniversary, and also with this particular event," Rhen said. "It worked out perfectly."

Baltimore County Director of Tourism and Promotions Marjorie Hampson asked Barranger if the band could perform early last week, meaning that it was a quick turnaround for such a high-profile performance.

Della Santina, who lives in Knollwood, said they learned all of the songs at a summer sleep away camp, and performed them over the weekend at a parade in Reisterstown. Given the circumstances of Monday's performance, all that extra practice came in handy.

"Not only is it a unique experience that none of the kids can do again in our lives, it's also a chance to play in front of people who are really important," said Hart Guonjian-Pettit, a senior co-drum major from Stoneleigh.

Most of the performing, however, was done before those important people could arrive. The band played several Americana-themed tunes as the crowd gathered, and frequently mixed in the school's fight song.

As Phelps and the Olympians arrived by boat from the Under Armour headquarters at Tide Point, the band members momentarily forgot their duties as they tried to lay eyes on Phelps.

Rhen snapped his fingers to regain their attention, and several band members groaned at the realization that they'd have to fix their eyes on the conductor instead of Phelps.

And though they were relegated from the sides of the stage to the ground, the Silk Girls were honored to be part of the event as well.

"All of them are so successful, and it's cool to be part of the Olympics back home," senior captain Linda Barr of Idlewylde said.

Barr and teammate Taylor Bensley said they have seen Phelps around town before, including at the celebratory parade through Towson after his perfect Beijing Olympic performance.

"It's really cool to be recognized as part of his alma mater," Bensley, a junior from Lutherville, said.

Throughout the event, Towson High School was mentioned by many of the presenters and applauded for its contributions to the celebration.

And of course, the whole crowd roared at the mere mention of Phelps, though one row of audience members had much more to cheer for. Barranger, Assistant Principals John Stevens, Traci Mathena, and Joslyn Travis, and Phelps' former teachers, Debbie Richmond and Gil Stange, wore their maroon THS sunglasses with pride and cheered each performance of the band louder than the last.

Richmond, who was the advisor for Phelps' Class of 2003, remembers Phelps simply as the kid whom she'd see in the hallway or at Senior Prom.

"To me, he's just Michael who was at school," Richmond said. "I'm always excited when I see any of my former students; this one just happens to be Michael Phelps."

Though many of them weren't even in school when Phelps passed through Towson High, Richmond's students are still quite taken with Phelps. Last week, she assigned her Spanish class a fantasy interview with a celebrity: all the girls picked Phelps.

Stange, who taught the tenth-grade honors world history class Phelps missed for a month during the Sydney Olympics, recalled a similar fervor surrounding his star students.

"It was kind of hard to get the girls to pay attention in class," he said. "Even then, when he walked down the hall, he was a man among boys."

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