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CARBONDALE – There’s something magical about the decades-long tradition of the Marching Salukis that has made the band far more than just another sideline act in the history of Saluki athletics.

Donning maroon tuxedoes, these musicians don’t just march – they swagger with a dash of jazz and a sprinkle of funk, and they have so much fun that band alumni keep coming back year after year on Homecoming weekend to relive the experience, if just for a night.

For 26 years, and even longer in an unofficial way, former band members billed as the Marching Salukis Alumni descend on Carbondale for a repeat performance of the “Saluki Salute to America” – a melody that opens with “America the Beautiful before transitioning into “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the opening of the Homecoming football game, followed by a half-time performance of the SIU Alma Mater and Fight Song.

From recent graduates to those who played in the late 1960s, they return to mingle with their lifelong friends and mentor Mike Hanes, the longtime director of the Marching Salukis, and to feel the thrill, once again, of performing under the stadium lights. Some return as husband and wife, whose love life began between marching practices years ago. Others return with offspring who have followed in the footsteps of a former marching mom and/or dad.

Recent graduates still remember some of the fancy footwork, and dance along, while at least some of the graduates from decades ago say they’re doing pretty good just to remember the notes and shoulder the trek with a heavy tuba.

Of all the former students from bygone years who celebrate the annual Homecoming week in Carbondale, The Marching Salukis Alumni members say they are one of the most close-knit groups to be found. One member flew in from Germany for the reunion; another drove from Oklahoma.

“It’s like a family,” said Jennifer Keefe, of Mahomet, who graduated in 2004.

And in an even more profound way, for Keefe, it’s even more than “like” family. She met her husband, Ken Keefe, on her first day of band camp at SIU in 2001. She played the trumpet. He was a drum major, two years her senior. They fell in love, got married, and on Saturday night, they marched together with the alumni band with their daughter, 2-year-old Mia, on Jennifer’s back in a baby carrier. And it appears Mia may be a Marching Saluki in training, as she was blowing pretty enthusiastically on a plastic kazoo.

The Keefes are just one of several band mates who have fallen in love between performances.

Jim and Vicky Beers of Chester met 36 years ago, and it’s a story Jim loves to tell. “Oh my gosh,” Vicki said on Friday night at a band reunion event, as Jim began to retell it for what Vicki declared the umpteenth time. “All of Southern Illinois knows it,” she said.

So the tale goes, the two were the last to leave an event at Giant City Lodge they’d played on Dec. 5, 1979. Jim, a percussionist, thought Vicki, who played the saxophone, was cute so he struck up a conversation. Being of the chivalrous sort, Jim said he told Vicki she shouldn’t drive back through town at night alone, and he offered to follow her. Then he walked her to her dorm, and before parting ways, made sure to get her phone number. He was stepping high until several days went by when he couldn’t reach her. But she finally called him back on a Thursday. “We went out on Friday, and we’ve been together ever since,” Jim said.

The two have four grown children, all of whom attended SIU. Their two sons, Jimmy (Class of 2010) and Jeremy (Class of 2014) both were Marching Salukis and graduated with music degrees.

Second generation Marching Salukis are pretty common, too. Will Biby, who grew up in Mulkeytown, said he remembers as a kid hearing his dad, Dave Biby, tell stories about his time as a Marching Saluki in the late 1970s. He was enthralled with the stories, and then hooked after seeing the band perform at various athletic events.

“When I came here, I knew I had to be a Marching Saluki,” said Will, who graduated in 2008 and lives in Chicago, and played the tuba, just as his father did. “And now that’s something I can share with my dad, and we have great memories.”

As for the father of the band, that’s Hanes, the alumni say. In various conversations, he was described as the “heart,” “glue,” and “soul” of the group that spans the generations. Hanes was hired as director of the marching band in 1965, a position he held for 30 years until he stepped aside in 1996 (he had to leave the position for a few years shortly after he was hired to serve in Vietnam). He retired as director of bands in 2005. As director emeritus, he still leads the band every Homecoming when the Marching Salukis Alumni take the field.

At the reunion event at the Student Center Friday night, the Marching Salukis gave a private performance to those who came before them. The alumni wrapped shoulders around one another and sang the lyrics as they played the Alma Mater.

Jacob Gorecki, of Carbondale, a senior majoring in education and drum major for the Marching Salukis, said playing for the alumni is one of his favorite annual events.

“It’s super special,” he said. “Decades from now, I’ll be coming back like these guys.”

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molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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