LeRoy Esau might live in Hutchinson, but Lawrence was the place he called home in the summer for many years.
As the assistant director of Midwest Music and Art Camp from 1965 to 1971, Esau helped oversee a summer camp that in its heyday filled Kansas University’s residence halls with 1,600 students.
Tonight Esau, who hasn’t conducted in Lawrence for nearly 40 years, will pick up the baton again as a guest conductor for the “National Emblem” march during the Lawrence City Band’s first performance this summer.
Esau, who was a band director at Hutchinson High School and for the Hutchinson Municipal Band, also celebrates his 80th birthday today.
“Sure, I’m excited,” he said of tonight’s performance.
Bob Foster, who was director of KU bands for 31 years and conducts the Lawrence City Band, said having Esau conduct will put a spotlight on both the music camp and Esau.
“He has been a good friend of the band program at KU for a long, long time,” Foster said.
For years, Esau was one of three band conductors at the camp. Each weekend, the camp’s bands, choirs and orchestras would give concerts.
At the time Esau was there, the camp attracted well-known guest conductors from across the country, including Victor Alessandro with the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra, U.S. Air Force Band conductor Col. Arnald Gabriel and bandleader for “The Tonight Show” Skitch Henderson.
“It was such a recruiting tool for the university. A lot of students that came, stayed, and not only in music but in art and journalism,” Esau said.
Among Esau’s favorite stories from his time as assistant camp director is about how one of KU’s most popular fight songs came about.
Long before it had thousands of Kansas University fans clapping and singing “Go! Fight! Win Jayhawks!” in Allen Fieldhouse as the clock winds down before the game, the “Fighting Jayhawk” march was played at the band camp.
In 1967, Esau was approached by a high school student from Louisiana named William Davis.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Esau, I just wrote a march and I want you to take a look at it and tell me if it is any good,’” Esau said.
Esau told Davis that if he composed parts for all instruments in the band, the song could be played at one of the camp’s concerts.
“I thought it was a great march when I first saw it. And then we played it,” Esau said.
KU faculty also heard it and thought it would “make a heck of a fight song,” Esau said. Davis revised the song and turned the rights for the piece over to the university.
Someday, Esau said, he hopes the university honors Davis, who is now retired from the University of Georgia School of Music, as the composer of the famous fight song.
“They play that tune all over the campus and he has never gotten any recognition,” Esau said.