The Pride & Joy of Norwood
By Karen De Napoli, Laurie Kearney, and Linda Rau
Norwood has always enjoyed a musical legacy. The Norwood Brass band, formed in 1866 when Norwood was still part of South Dedham, had their own hall and gave summer concerts until 1891 on the original bandstand in the Guild Square Park. Many of the churches and ethnic groups in Norwood had their own bands and choirs, and these celebrations and parades were joyous and successful. During the 1960s, however, one group, The Norwood Debonnaires an all-girls Drum and Bugle Corps, was considered and touted as the pride and joy of Norwood.
The drum and bugle corps is similar in some ways to a marching band or a fife and drum band. They are descended from military bands that accompanied armies into battle. Fife and drum bands were active during the Revolutionary War in America, and drummers marching with armies go all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome, with leaders using the drums, fifes, and bugles to herald commands.
In a drum and bugle (classic) corps, only drums and bell-shaped brass instruments were used and you could only play what you could carry. This is what made the drum and bugle different from a marching band, which had wind instruments, and a fife and drum corps that had no brass. Another difference between the bands was that a marching band was usually part of a school or college, where a drum and bugle, and occasionally a fife and drum corps, were considered free-standing organizations sponsored by American Legions, VFWs, or churches. After WWI, many veteran organizations formed senior drum and bugle corps, which allowed returning veterans to participate, and during the 1930s they added the junior corps which capped the age of participation at 21.
Norwood’s drum and bugle corps was started sometime around 1933 under Fr. Doherty and Fr. McAleer at St. Catherine’s Parish. It was initially comprised of girls and boys, and after the untimely death of both Fr. Doherty and then Fr. McAleer, the corps remained somewhat inactive. In 1938, Fr. Walsh was made pastor of St. Catherine’s. Fr. Walsh was a classically trained musician and made great improvements, not only to the school and parish, but their musical groups. He formed the award-winning choir, a marching band, and the all-girls St. Catherine’s Drum and Bugle Corps.
The St. Catherine’s corps was active as part of St. Catherine’s Parish through the 1940s into the 1950s, but sometime during the late 1950s, the corps was no longer sponsored by the parish. In 1957, the corps sponsorship was taken over by American Legion Post 70 and became the Norwood Debonnaires. This new sponsorship began over a decade of competitions that saw the Norwood Debonnaires repeatedly win and bring home championship titles, local and national, to Norwood.
In the 1957-1958 drum and bugle corps competition year, the new Debonnaires won the Class C Championship of the Catholic Youth Organization (C.Y.O.) circuit. In 1961, the corps, because of the Class C wins and increased membership, moved up to the more challenging competitions in Class B. The corps entered 18 competitions, coming in first-place 16 times and securing two second-place spots. That same year, they also won championships in the Class B Eastern Mass and C.Y O. circuits. These astounding wins and performances moved the Debonnaires into the Class A bracket, and they became the only all-girls drum and bugle corps to compete against all-boys corps in New England.
The phenomenal success of the ‘Debs,’ as they were fondly known, was the result of hard work, dedication, daily and nightly practices, and a spirit of harmony and comradeship that followed them from their prac tice sessions at Elks field and the Norwood Armory to the competition arenas. Under the direction of manager Wallace McDonald, Walter Aspinwall, Joseph Wapple, Francis Connolly, Robert Parquette, and others, the girls learned their craft to perfection.
Traveling throughout New England on the Mayflower circuit in the mid-60s, the girls competed in over 30 competitions and were undefeated champions for three years, which included going up against some all-boys corps. In the summer of 1965, they ran a fundraiser, raffling off a car, to be able to compete in the National Open in Chicago, IL. Although they did not win, their drum quartet placed 12th in the nation against older and larger corps. The Debs traveled extensively in New England, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Canada, and Washington DC. They brought home many first-place trophies including the World’s All Girl Championship held in Bridgeport CT, in 1965. That same year, they competed in, and won first place, at the National Petticoat Review, held in Pittsfield, MA.
Besides competing on many circuits, the Debs also participated in local ceremonies, like the Labor Day Parade in Boston, performed at local American Legion and VFW ceremonies, as well as hosted their own music festivals and exhibitions in Norwood. They traveled to Washington DC for the National Invitational, and in 1967, successfully defended their championship on the Mayflower Drum and Bugle circuit.
The Debs, with their hard work and precision drills, made it all look easy. Hard work and dedication to the corps and each other as part of the whole, and their outstanding musical skills, brought accolades to them wherever and whenever they performed. They learned skills that carried them throughout life and made friendships and memories that never faded. Many women will reminisce that performing with the Debs was one of the best times of their lives. Besides all that they earned to enrich their own lives, they brought fame and notice to the town of Norwood, and truly were the Town’s pride and joy.
The Norwood Historical Society is proud to preserve and share artifacts and memories telling the history of the Debs.
Sources: Incredible thanks to Kathy Mullen, a proud Deb, for her memories, scrapbook, and friendship.
Norwood Historical Society archives
St. Catherine of Sienna parish 100th-anniversary book
Wikipedia: Drum & Bugle Corps (Classic)
Yamaha Music USA – Marching Through Time website.
DCX -Drum Corps Xperience -website.