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Butler man once played in front of Queen Elizabeth

John Gilliland of Butler was with the Marine Corps Drum and Bugle Corps as a soprano bugler when it played a concert before Queen Elizabeth II. SUBMITED PHOTO

As the world watched Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral Monday at London's Westminster Abbey, one Butler man remembers when he played before the late British monarch.

John Gilliland, 60, of Butler, played before the queen when he was a member of the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps — he played soprano bugle.

Gilliland said, “We played before President Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth. This would have been in 1982.

“She was in the U.S. and Reagan was staying at Santa Barbara, and they decided to do a concert for her at the San Francisco Opera House on the West Coast,” he said.

Gilliland said, “It was the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, Tony Bennett, Mary Martin was there, the San Francisco Youth Orchestra, the U.C. Berkley Marching Band.

“We were on the last section of the bill. We played ‘Stars and Stripes Forever,’” he said. “We were in the hallways, all the other groups on stage. When the final melody began, they opened up the doors and we came down the aisles.”

“I was on the side opposite the queen,” Gilliland said. “The usher would crack open the door and let us see. The queen was in a second level box seat sitting with Reagan. (Prince) Phillip was sitting beside her,” he said. “It was Phillip, the queen, Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan.”

“It was such a blur,” he said.

Gilliland graduated from Butler High School in 1980 and joined the Marines through early enlistment his junior year.

He had to audition for a place in the corps, but Gilliland had been a member of the General Butler Vagabonds Drum and Bugle Corps since he was 12 and was accepted to be one of the corps’ 40 members based at Twentynine Palms Marine base in California.

In fact, he said it was his experience with the Vagabonds that gave him the desire to join the Marines.

“When I was in the General Butler Vagabonds, they brought in Truman Crawford as a guest, to help the group. Crawford was the director of the Marine drum and bugle corps.

“He was very well known in the drum and bugle community, very well regarded,” he said.

“He was very Marine Corps with the group, teaching the older kids. I was impressed with this guy,” he said. “Eight years later I joined the Marines.”

“We played all over the country. We were based in one camp, but we traveled all the time. I would say three-fourths of the time we were on the road,” he said.

The Marine Drum and Bugle Corps played military functions such as birthday balls and change-of-command ceremonies. They would march in parades and play at high schools to aid in recruiting efforts.

Gilliland said, “We would do a just about anything anybody would want us to be at. In the movie, ‘Rocky III’ during the final fight scene where he refights Clubber Lange, the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps is there and Clubber knocks over two members.

“I didn’t get to be one. He knocked over two of the tallest guys,” he said.

Gilliland said that after getting out of the Marines he played for a senior drum and bugle corps for adults, Steel City Ambassadors. The group was started by Vagabond alumni.

He met his wife, Jennifer, while he was in the senior drum and bugle corps. “Her dad was marching and she’d come around,” he said.

A professional truck driver, Gilliland said he’s spent the last 13 years driving a mobile kitchen in a semitrailer for the Jersey Surf Drum and Bugle Corps during the corps’ summer touring season.

During summer touring, he said the Jersey Surf party consists of 150 kids and another 50 staff and adjunct people that need to be fed four times a day.

When not behind the wheel, Gilliland said he still plays the bugle a bit.

“I was voted into the Pa. Drum Corps Hall of Fame several years ago just for everything I’ve done with active drum and bugle corps since 1974,” he said. “If I wasn’t marching, I was working with them. If I wasn’t working with them I was a fan.”

Today, Gilliland drives the kitchen truck for the Jersey Surf Drum and Bugle Corps during its summer touring season. SUBMITTED PHOTOS
John Gilliland, 60, Butler, has been involved in drum and bugle corps since he was 12. PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Maher
People attend a vigil and pay their respects to the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, draped in the Royal Standard with the Imperial State Crown and the Sovereign's orb and sceptre, lying in state on the catafalque in Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster in London, Friday Sept. 16, 2022. Daniel Leal/Pool Photo via AP
President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan pose for photographers with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at a formal state dinner, March 3, 1983, at the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)