Robert Briggs, the long-time director of UC Berkeley's marching band, died Sept. 17 at the UC San Francisco Medical Center from complications following gall bladder surgery. He was 81.
Briggs, a music major and cornet player, joined the marching band as a freshman in 1947. He maintained close ties — as a player, assistant director, director and finally director emeritus — to the band and the university for the next 61 years, leaving behind a legacy of fierce loyalty to Cal and an unbridled passion for the music he conducted.
"He and music were one," said Dan Cheatham, a Cal band drummer in the 1950s. "Even to the point where I have seen tears come to his eyes when he finished a piece of music — Bob never quite left the music world."
Given his long tenure, Briggs was also remembered as a mentor to countless students.
"The support, warmth and generosity he extended to not only me but the entire band is something that will stay with me," said current Band Director Robert Calonico, who met Briggs during his first year at Cal in 1972.
Robert Orlando Briggs was born in 1927 in Modesto. He attended Modesto High School and Modesto Junior College before entering Berkeley. Upon graduating in 1951 with a bachelor's degree in music, Briggs served in the Korean War, where he directed an Army band in Okinawa, Japan, according to information from UC Berkeley. He later earned a master's degree in music from San Francisco State.
When he returned from his military service, he served as the band director of Armijo High School in Fairfield. He became assistant band director at Cal in 1967. He was named acting director in 1971, and in 1973 took over as the sole director, a role he held for 22 years until his retirement in 1995.
Throughout his career with the band, Briggs was a part of some of Cal's most memorable moments — for both the band and the Golden Bears. He was particularly proud of the fact that he marched in four Rose Bowls — the only Cal graduate to do so — and he oversaw the admittance of women into the band in the mid-1970s.
"I'll miss him," Calonico said. "He was a link to a lot of Cal history."
Barbara Moore, a mellophone player with the band who met Briggs her freshman year in 1977, said he was the ideal leader of the student-run band, recalling how he gingerly struck a balance of being supportive while allowing students to learn for themselves.
"He would step in when he needed to, and he would give us enough rope to hang ourselves with," she said.
Moore, who now heads the Cal Band Alumni Association, added, "Bob was never overt in his exuberance. So when he did get excited, that was a special moment."
One such moment was during a Big Game at Stanford in 1977. After the band's half-time show, fans of the rival school gave Briggs and his students a standing ovation. But the band members' backs were turned to the section, so the only indication they had, Moore said, was a beaming Briggs.
"That was always a special moment — nothing like seeing him with a big grin," Moore said.
Briggs never married and had no children. The band, Cheatham said, was all the family Briggs needed.
Briggs remained active in band's involvements after his retirement in 1995. He organized and conducted the Solano Winds, a community music ensemble in Fairfield. He also was a fixture with the Cal Alumni Band, for which he would often direct "The Star Spangled Banner" before games.
A memorial is being planned for sometime in the next month.