Everybody has a dream. Last night, a cherubic, retired history teacher from England stood before a crowd of 1,000 at the U.S. Capitol and got a chance to fulfill his.
Gay Corrie, 63, slowly lifted his hands, proudly looked out at 45 members of the U.S. Marine Band in full red, white and black dress and began conducting a lively John Philip Sousa march. It had been, he said, his ambition for more than 50 years.
Corrie, a longtime music buff, won the chance to conduct the "best band in the world" by entering a contest last year in northern England. The contest, sponsored by a local newspaper in his shipbuilding town of Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria and an airline, awarded a prize for the best answer in 24 words or less to "Where do you want to go in America and why?"
Corrie, who has admired Sousa since he was 13 and has helped the U.S. Marine Band arrange Sousa marches, had no trouble with a short answer: "I want to stand where John Philip Sousa stood and conduct his band in a Sousa march."
Sousa directed the Marine Band from 1880 to 1892.
"This is the greatest day in my life," said Corrie, who arrived in Washington on Tuesday with his wife Betty. "I've come 3,000 miles and 50 years for this moment."
Corrie played the french horn in a band when he was young, and said he "fell in love" with Sousa because of his compelling rhythms and colorful melodies. "They were really Americana," he said. During World War II, Corrie met a "musical chap" in the Army Air Forces who told him, "If you want the Sousa sound, you must find the Marine Corps Band."
Lt. Col. Charles P. Erwin introduced Corrie to the crowd attending the band's weekly summer concert, praising him as a "bona fide Sousaphile."
With Corrie conducting, the band played Sousa's 1900 melody "Hands Across the Sea." Corrie smiled. He grinned. He beamed.
"I stood where Sousa stood," Corrie said later. "I got the same sound he probably got. That's why this means so much to me. It was the thrill of a lifetime."
Band member Donald Spinelli said Corrie conducted three Sousa marches yesterday morning at an emotional dress rehearsal. "He was crying at the end," Spinelli said. "It made me appreciate things I take for granted. We were just practicing, but this was the culmination of his lifelong dream."