Sept. 23, 1998
by Emily Rabon
In 1959, one of the greatest Clemson traditions came to an end. This was the final year of the Senior Platoon, that began in 1930 under the guidance of the legendary Frank B. “Gator” Farr.
The fast stepping (double cadence) drill team performed intricate maneuvers that always ended with the Queen Anne salute. They were always in demand to perform and made appearances at various parades, including the Azalea Parade in Charleston, the Shriners Festival in Aiken in front of Clemson alum and then governor Strom Thurmond. The platoon also traveled as far away as New Orleans to march in the Mardi Gras parade. Two of the most prestigious places they have performed were Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. They also performed at all home football games and sometimes traveled with the team.
The only time there was not a Senior Platoon was during World War II because most of the older cadets were in the war. During this time the Tiger Platoon was formed, which was opened to all cadets. The ending of the Senior Platoon came in 1959-60 when Clemson became a civilian institution.
Before the change, the platoon was a highly sought after honor to the cadets. Tryouts were held in the spring and only rising seniors could tryout. Anywhere between 100-150 cadets tried out every spring and fifty were chosen for the forty-three member drill unit. There was competitive training for one month and the old members vote on the new members. If a cadet made a single mistake, then they would not be asked to come back. After making it through the rigorous month of competitive training, the cadets still had to undergo a five minute interview in front of the current platoon. You would be interrogated on the various routines and the potential member had to display a positive attitude.
If the cadet made it this far, there was still more to undergo. They then had to endure two weeks of initiation. They carried around a box of “goodies” and a paddle. Every time they saw a current senior member, they did a Queen Anne salute and give the members candy in exchange for a signature on their paddle. After lunch, the new members were lined up outside of the dining hall and paddled by the old members.
After the rigorous and sometimes humiliating two weeks, the tables were turned and the new members sought their revenge! After their final “paddling”, the new members shook the old members hands to signify the switch from old to new. Then, the new members would take the old members and throw them in the reflecting pond on campus. “We looked forward to that for the entire two weeks,” remembers former cadet Leonard George, a 1952-53 member of the platoon.
All of the training and torture was all worth it though. If you made it, you were part of the elite. But there was still more to pay. “We drilled from 6 a.m. until 6:45 a.m.,” remembers George, “Then we went and got ready for breakfast and classes. At 4 p.m., we were back at it again. But it was worth it. When we competed against other schools, they did not even compare. At half-time of the football games, instead of the fans getting up and going to the concession area, they would stay to watch the platoon perform. It was electrifying to watch.”
Former Sports Information Director Bob Bradley remembers the team. “One minute, they would be spread out all over the football field and you would think that there was no way they would get back together. But the next thing you know, they were all back in line and still in step together.”
George was the commander of the 1953 Senior Platoon when they traveled to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras parade. “That was the most difficult parade we ever marched in. The crowd was loud and out of control.”
In the early 1990’s, George was talking to Debbie Dubose, director of Alumni Relations, and he suggested that they try to reunite the members of the Senior Platoon. They ended up contacting over 1500 members and the first reunion was held in the President’s Box after the 1992 N.C. State football game. One of the members decided that the best way for people to remember the platoon was if they could see them perform. In the summer of 1996, the members met in Clemson and practiced one weekend each month from June until October. Their debut was at the 1996 N.C. State football game. “We made a few mistakes. The crowd was so loud we could not hear the some of the commands!” remembers George, “Last year when we performed at the Duke game, the announcer asked for the crowd to be quiet until the end. We were perfect that time. I just hope we can pull it off again this year. We are starting to get up there in age.”
What makes these dentists, retired surgeons, retired textile managers, engineers and PhDs get together each year? “It is just the love for Clemson,” says George, “When there are members driving all the way from Texas and Virginia once a month to practice, their dedication shows. This group is a wide cross section of Clemson humanity. This group is a good focal point of Clemson spirit.”
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