Loyal to the corps
Founder drummed up excellence with Percussion Nauts
It’s been more than 35 years since Dave Larson played alongside fellow musicians with the Percussion Naut Patriots fife and drum corps.
On Saturday it all came back to him as he and four other original members of the drum line warmed up for a reunion performance at the Mirabeau Park Hotel in Spokane Valley.
“It’s kind of amazing how it never leaves you,” Larson said as he rapped his drumsticks on a table.
The reunion for Spokane’s renowned drum and bugle corps drew more than 200 people, who all gathered to pay tribute to Howard “Howie” Robbins, the founder and executive director of the band.
The Percussion Nauts formed in 1961 as a drums-only unit with seven drummers from the West Valley High School marching band, all students of Robbins, who taught percussion out of his home.
The Patriot portion was added later, which included wind instruments and the color guard. Hundreds of young musicians and performers – ages 9 to 18 – were involved with the group until it disbanded in 1991.
This weekend’s reunion was organized in part to honor Robbins, who is now 92.
“He shaped the foundation for the rest of my life,” said Kirk Ruehl, a baritone bugle player with the Percussion Nauts in 1972. Through his work with the band, he was able to get a scholarship to study music at New York University.
“He taught me a crazy, but not manic, work ethic,” Ruehl said.
With its roots in national heritage and in military marching style, the group performed a panorama of American music from the Colonial period and dressed the part. Robbins instilled a passion for excellence in the youth he oversaw, former band members said.
Starting in the 1970s, the group performed all over the country and became one of the nation’s leading drum corps, winning many awards. They were invited to perform in Europe and Washington, D.C., and served as the governor’s official ceremonial unit for dignitaries arriving in Spokane for the World’s Fair in 1974.
“Everything I learned about entertainment and the level of dedication required, were learned” from Robbins, said Dave Wakeley, a professor at Spokane Falls Community College and a local jazz percussionist. He played with the Percussion Nauts from 1970 to 1974. “Most of us here are still trying to find that level of dedication again.”
To his surprise, Robbins was awarded a Spokane mayoral proclamation Saturday dedicating Oct. 17 as Howard A. Robbins Day.
“He was really the rock that held us together,” said Deanna Mason, a color guard member from 1975 to 1977. “He just touched the lives of literally hundreds of youth.”