The Legend of the Silver Penny

Legend of the Silver Penny

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Ken Fanti’s “change”

For members of the Bluecoats, your first real arrival into the ranks is when you are given your blue shoelace.  All winter long rookies see coins jangling around the necks of veterans on that blue shoelace.  This year the shoelace, and the change that comes with it, turns 25 years old.  Members of the Bluecoats who complete a season receive a silver penny from that year to wear on a blue shoe-string lanyard.  Like many corps traditions, it has evolved over the years.  But unlike tradition, it has served to tie together generations of Bluecoats who were not part of the original tradition.

Originally published in the Blue Review Newsletter in the Winter of 1995, Seth Hamstead (soprano, 1992-1996) wrote about how the tradition began:

Tradition. It binds people together and makes them feel like a part of a group. Such a simple concept, yet so hard to establish.  Who starts a tradition anyway?  When you ask a person why they are putting up a Christmas tree, they will usually respond that it is tradition.  Ask them who started that tradition, and they probably won’t have an answer.  Nobody knows the name of the first guy back in Germany to have the bright idea to put a live tree into his living room and decorate it with ornaments.  Little did he know that he started a tradition that would span centuries.

Back in June of 1992, in Normal, Illinois, the Bluecoats tried to start a tradition that would bind together the members of the corps and hopefully put an end to the large turnover in membership that the corps had experienced in the last couple of years, and they succeeded.

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Scott Miller’s status as a rookie is easy to see with his bare shoelace during the season

A rather simple tradition, it is merely composed of a shoestring and a penny.  Now mind you that this is no ordinary penny, but a silver one, and the shoestring that it is placed on is blue (for obvious reasons). Each first year member, “rookie” as most of us affectionately call them, receives their shoestring after their first performance as a symbol of truly becoming a Bluecoat.  The penny must wait until later.  The pennies are given out on the day of Finals as a sign of the end of the season, a reward for surviving the game and a remembrance of the struggle to achieve excellence.  The penny is from the year that you have marched, and multiple year veterans start to have small collections that could only otherwise serve as change for a nickel.

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Scott Miller’s original 1992 penny after the season

The penny means something different to every member that possesses one.  What does unify us is the love for the one cent piece and all that it stands for.  I look at mine and see the sweat that was given for an eleven and a half minute show, the feeling of forty thousand people giving you a standing ovation after you have just given them all that you can and wanting to give more, the close friendships that result from spending every second of the day for ten weeks with the same people that you would never have known otherwise, and the gym floors that were probably never intended to be used in the fashion that you used them.  Basically, I see my love for the activity and above all, my love for the corps that brought me to it. 

What do you see?

In 2012, Chris Miles, drum major in 1992 and one of those who started the tradition, reflected on how it all began:

Back in ’91 I remember, towards the end of the year, that the corps didn’t feel like one unit – not like the year before. I just remember wanting the same feeling I had in 1990. I wanted rookies to feel like they found a new home and for vets to always know they belong to a good one.

I had also noticed Cavaliers had a necklace with the gears on them: a gear per year marched. I thought it was awesome you could recognize them in and out of uniform. I also thought it was cool that they had something to recognize the years they marched. So at the end of the year, I kept trying to think of something that would be similar but distinctly different for us and might bring us together more. I discussed it with a few people after finals, but nothing really came of it.

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Pennies under Nick Chastain’s uniform

As the winter camps continued I talked to Andy Bugosh (the other drum major that year) about my silly idea. I am glad I did because he helped a lot in making my idea a reality.

I just remember we wanted everything to be cheap. Otherwise, we would not be able to do it that year or make it something repeatable. I forget who exactly thought of the penny and the shoelace. I think it was Andy or possibly by committee in those late nights at Walsh but it wasn’t decided till late May or right before Hell Week.  The pennies even matched with the fact that we were doing Penny Lane that year. Hokey…yes, but nonetheless pleasant there was a reoccurring theme of sorts.  Andy came up with the idea on how to tie them, I’m pretty sure.

Andy and I decided to wait till the first show to hand them out, and to have rookies (along with everyone else) get their new penny at the end of the year. It didn’t make sense to us that people get a penny for a year they hadn’t marched yet. Also, if someone left early or came late, we didn’t have to worry as much about who did or didn’t get a penny. 

I am really happy that I helped to make a tradition in an organization that I truly love, and that tradition still happens today. I also want to thank Andy for all his help and anyone else who was a part of this that I didn’t mention.

By 1997 some members started to use links from the chain on the helmet to attach the pennies to the shoe-string.  Brian Carr, a 1997 soprano, said of the tradition: 

In ’97 some of the sopranos had helmet links, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a sanctioned thing… I have 3 links on my string, one for each penny, but I honestly don’t remember where they came from. I know there was no ceremony involved.

By 2002, the helmet chain link had been integrated into the tradition.  The pennies also turned into a seniority concept for procedures such as selecting your bus for summer tour.

As the international flavor of the corps increased during the early 2000’s, members from other nations would bring and use their nation’s penny equivalent to add to their chain. Other members, as a show of friendship, would also use those nation’s pennies on their chain.

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Eric Humbert Story’s pennies

According to Eric Story, member from 2007-2011 (drum major his final three years), added:

In 2009, during pre-move ins at our membership leadership meetings, it was decided that you can wear all the foreign coins that were given to you on your shoelace with your penny/pennies, however the only stipulation was decided that you can have one link on your shoelace per year, and all coins you got for that year (should you wish to wear them all) go on the same link.

The use of a nickel, to represent five years as a member, began around 1998 but had been talked about as early as the first year in 1992.  Kelli Carlson, a guard member from 1994-1998, and staff in ’00 and ’01, remembered, “I got a nickel in 98… we joked about it long before.”  John David Mayo, a member in the mid 1990s and Drum Major in 1997 and 98, attributes the nickel part of the tradition to Mike “Canuck” Fanning.  This component still remains, as Eric Story continued, “[Today] you wear all 5 of your pennies, and on top of that wear your nickel.”

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Pre-1992 alumni Mike Newsom, Michelle Newsom and Mark Newsom sport their pennies at the 2012 reunion

This tradition is not solely for those members from 1992 and beyond.  Alumni from any year now sport the pennies.  Those who come upon the tradition today are welcome to visit the corps’ souvenir booth, which has silver pennies available for members who marched prior to 1992.  All any alumni of the corps need to do is inquire at the souvie booth and obtain their respective pennies.

In 2017 those rookies to the Bluecoats will see a new piece of jangle added by members of the 2016 Bluecoats to the blue shoestring-lanyard: a championship ring.