Hawkeye Marching Band leader directs his swan song

'I'm just going to take it all in,' he says of final Kinnick appearance

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IOWA CITY — Among all the saxophone players in the 260-person University of Iowa Hawkeye Marching Band, Melissa Myers assumed she’d be just another bobbing yellow plume.

She, like many in the 136-year-old band, came from a smaller town where she played in a smaller high school band. But she wasn’t lost on Hawkeye band Director Kevin Kastens.

“When he first said my name as a freshman, I was shocked that out of 260 people he knew my name,” Myers said.

Kastens, who began as the UI’s associate director of bands 20 years ago and made the marching band what it is today, has that kind of reputation.

So when he announced plans this semester to retire at the end of the year — making this fall his last football season — students were stunned and saddened.

“We were all whispering, ‘Wait, is he talking about retiring? What’s happening? Oh my gosh. We were all freaking out,” Myers said. “Obviously, he probably deserves a break.”

Kastens, 62, joined the UI faculty in 1998 and in those two decades never missed a game — raising his arms to conduct 171 Hawkeye football halftime performances.

“I’m just glad I get to shake his hand one last time in Kinnick Stadium,” Myers said.

That last time comes Saturday as the Hawkeyes close out this season’s slate of home football games against Purdue University.

Kastens, who also teaches music education courses and conducts the UI Concert Band, will travel for any bowl game the Hawkeyes make at the end of this season, and finish the spring semester. But his relationship within Kinnick will change after Saturday.

“I’m just going to take it all in,” he said. “And I hope to see a Hawkeye victory.”

Before starting at Iowa, Kastens was associate director of bands and head of the Marching Mizzou at University of Missouri for five years. Before Missouri, he was assistant band director at Indiana University from 1987 to 1993.

After earning degrees in music education from the University of Illinois in 1978, Kastens started his career at the high school level — landing a job at his alma mater, Wheeling High School in a suburb of Chicago.

He once dreamed of high school direction as his end goal, but caught the bug for the collegiate level as a teaching assistant at Illinois. For three years before his assistantship, he played sax for the Marching Illini.

After jumping around some on his climb up the collegiate ladder, Kastens said his career clicked at Iowa.

“It was the right fit,” he said.

Just like now seems the right time to retire.

“Twenty is a nice round number,” he said. “And I think it’s time for a younger person to do this job. Also, I have a family, grandchildren, and marching band is pretty much a year-round job. Once you get past the season, you’re planning for the next.”

Kastens announced his retirement from the roughly $97,000 a year job internally in May, then told his students in August. The hope, he said, was to involve them in the search, which is underway, and to produce a smooth transition.

“We did not want to have an interim or visiting director, because you don’t make any progress,” he said. “We wanted to hire the person for the job for next year, so there’s strong continuity.”

Looking back on his career with Iowa, Kastens could recite a highlight reel of gridiron ups and downs — not the mention epic downpours, heat waves and blizzards the band played through.

“We don’t like rain. We can handle snow. We can handle hot and cold. But rain does damage to instruments,” he said, recalling the Iowa-Tennessee Tech game from 2011. “If you Google Iowa-Tennessee Tech, you will see video of water just cascading down the stairs like a waterfall.”

One of his top career moments was the Hawkeyes’ trip to Pasadena, Calif, on Jan. 1, 2016.

“I think it’s every band director’s dream to march in the Tournament of Roses parade. That’s seen internationally,” Kastens said. “And to play in the Rose Bowl game — even though the Hawkeyes didn’t fare too well on the field — it was still just a great experience for our students.”

The students knew how much that event meant to Kastens, and their loyalty to him came out in their preparation. Myers recalls one practice where it felt they walked in a circle for two hours. They got cold, hot, their knees ached.

But fourth-year marching band member Devan Cummings, 21, said they all knew something more was at stake.

“At the beginning of my freshman year and sophomore year, Mr. Kastens would always talk about how his dream of being a band director in a Big Ten band was to go to the Rose Bowl,” she said. “It just kind of seemed like, ‘Oh that will never really happen, but it would be great if it did.’

“In the 2015 season, we actually got to go,” Cummings said. “And in preparing for that, there was kind of an unspoken agreement within the band that we needed to do really well for him. This was his dream.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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