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The March of Time

September 11, 2007

Fran Simon
Photography by Paula Burch-Celentano

A photograph holds the power to draw you into the scene, evoking memories of the rhythms of life at a precise moment in time. Few possessions are more priceless.

sum07_suares_main_1Just ask those in the New Orleans area who lost their photographic memories with all their other possessions in the flooding after Hurricane Katrina. Or ask an archivist who painstakingly catalogues images as a gift to future generations.

You could also ask John Suares (M ’37), the retired physician, now in his 90s, whose memory was first triggered by a photograph recently taken and then by a set of photographs taken long ago.

It all began when Suares was reading a current issue of his university’s magazine and spied a photo of the newly revitalized Tulane Marching Band in their forest green and sky blue uniforms.

Scrutinizing the young faces in the photograph, he thought back to a time 75 years earlier, when he and his band mates played on a cross–country trip to the 1932 Rose Bowl—a giddy moment of glory during the tough days of the Great Depression.

Moments later the spry Suares was rummaging through a collection of black-and-white photos from the trip, his mind drifting back to that time, to playing saxophone in the band, to being young again. …

It is late December 1931, a heady time for the young men in the Tulane University Marching Band. An excited contingent of Tulane students boards a steam locomotive heading for Pasadena, Calif., for the 30th installment of the Rose Bowl, which this year pits the Green Wave against the Trojans of the University of Southern California.

The football team dominated the Southeastern Conference throughout the season, playing home games in the venerable Tulane Stadium, where the seats are always packed, the fans noisy and you can look skyward and see pigeons swooping up and away from the press box, rolls of film strapped to their legs as they dart to the offices of the Times-Picayune.

The trip by rail is the high point in the 19-year-old Suares’ first year at college. About 70 young men in the marching band clamber aboard the chartered Southern Pacific Railway train that is pulling several dining cars, a baggage car crammed with the band’s equipment and 15 Pullman sleeper cars filled with Tulane supporters who can afford the trip despite the hard times. There are no local bridges across the Mississippi River, so railway workers load the entire train onto a transfer boat to ferry it across the mighty waters that split the country into halves.

On the way, the train makes whistle-stops along the route with a gaggle of the band members playing a chorus of “The Olive and Blue March” and yelling a “Hullabaloo!” at each stop. The train makes a longer stop at San Antonio, where the band deploys to parade in uniform, their green capes flashing under bright Texas skies.

A pre-medical student intent on pursuing his medical degree after two years of undergraduate work, Suares temporarily forgets his studies as he rides the train. For the moment he is blissfully away from his academic load of 21 hours and anxiety about the additional extra hours he’ll face during summer school. With a crushing $300 tuition for each year of school and money so tight, there is little incentive to spend time in college.

Suares loves playing the sax, and a highlight of each week is practicing with the Tulane Marching Band under the stadium stands along Freret Street on Friday afternoon. Times are tough, but it’s good to be young.

The boys don’t know it, but the marching band nearly doesn’t make the trip to Pasadena. The cost of transporting such a large group cross-country during the Depression is a challenge and was an uncertainty up to a week before their departure.

Having left as paupers, band members arrive as princes as the Rose Bowl host committee treats the visiting football team and its compatriots like royalty, pulling out all the stops in a show of hospitality. The band receives an invitation to the ritzy Pasadena Breakfast Club, where under sparkling chandeliers a glamorous starlet sings “Sleepy Time Down South,” a popular Hoagie Carmichael tune.

That afternoon, a local resident appointed by the host committee gives Suares and a few of his band mates a tour of Pasadena, then invites the visitors to an elegant dinner at his home. During the meal, the host, straight-faced, announces that he had hoped to make the boys from New Orleans feel at home by serving roast possum but says he couldn’t find it at any of the local markets.

On the morning of New Year’s Day 1932, the band marches in the seven-mile Tournament of Roses Parade. Onlookers clutch souvenir programs proclaiming the extravaganza as “landing one more effective body-blow at Old Man Depression.” It has been an unusually wet winter in Pasadena and rain sprinkles but does not dampen the spirits of either the crowds or the marchers.

sum07_suares_band_1Suares does not feel tired or nervous walking the lengthy parade route. Rather, he feels like he’s cruising along the boulevard in the finest of automobiles—maybe a shiny new Chevrolet—with his friends in the rumble seat and everyone cheering.

Playing the Tulane fight song over and over again, the musicians excitedly look about to pick out the various starlets and movie stars seated in the stands along the route. Is that Carole Lombard? Myrna Loy? Jean Harlow or Barbara Stanwyck?

Immediately after the parade, the band is taken to Rose Bowl Stadium, where they join the USC band in performing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a popular patriotic tune that Congress has only just declared the official national anthem. As the Tulane Marching Band takes the field to assemble in the signature “T,” the flag bearers wave both the American flag and the Tulane flag.

Overhead, two blimps and two autogiros circle the rain-washed stadium. An estimated 83,000 cheering spectators are dazzled and somewhat shocked as the greatest team to come out of the South outplays the greatest team in the history of the Pacific Coast. The Pasadena Star News reports that the “fast-stepping Greenies” made twice as many first downs, gained more yardage from scrimmage, completed more passes and had a better punting average than their opponent. There’s one set of numbers, however, in which Tulane is deficient and that is the score. The outplayed Trojans win the game, 21 to 12, handing Tulane its only defeat of the season.

Despite the loss, everyone is in great spirits on the train ride back to New Orleans. The highlight of the return trip is a stop at the Grand Canyon, but the entire trip is something of a party, as the young men skirt the laws of Prohibition and obtain a copious supply of alcohol.

As the train carrying the Tulane supporters and band is ferried back across the Mississippi River, the whistles of the ships in the harbor sound a celebratory and deafening welcome home.

At home in Brandon, Miss., Suares strokes the burnished sax he played 75 years ago. Over the years, he has acquired three more instruments—a B-flat straight soprano, an E-flat alto and a B-flat tenor. Like photographs, each saxophone stirs up its own memories.

After he retired from his ophthalmology practice in his 70s, Suares formed a band with five friends. His first wife, Marie, named the band “The Retreads,” and though they formed for their own amusement, the combo became quite popular, entertaining at wedding receptions and country club events.

The heady days of Suares’ freshman year at Tulane have crystallized as a point in time before medical school, before his military service in World War II, before his long career as an ophthalmologist and the many aches of a life well-lived, including the death of the each of the other Retreads and all but five others in his medical class of ’37.  

“Senility is a terrible disease, by golly,” chuckles Suares, who will turn 94 in September. “I can’t recall what happened yesterday but I can tell you every detail about going to the Rose Bowl in 1932.”

His voice strong and clear, Suares launches into “Olive and Blue” with gusto. “Roll, Green Wave, Roll them down the field. …”

Summer 2007

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000