Former Mitchell resident will command musical group at inaugurationFred Ellwein is making preparations to command the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps on Monday as it marches in front of President Barack Obama on Inauguration Day.
By: Candy DenOuden, The Daily Republic
It’s been a busy week for Fred Ellwein.
The U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4’s wife, Dianne, said Fred has been running from interviews with ABC and NBC and CSPAN to the Pentagon, making last-minute appearances and preparations to command the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps on Monday as it marches in front of President Barack Obama on Inauguration Day. It’s his first experience leading the group during an inauguration.
“It’s that time of year,” Dianne said with a laugh.
Fred, a 52-year-old Sioux Falls native and former Mitchell resident, is equally matter-of-fact about the experience and his role as commander of one of only four special Army bands, and the only one commanded by a warrant officer.
“It’s pretty humbling,” he said. “It’s great to tell my organization’s story.”
The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is 52 years old. Fred took command in 2010, and it does nearly 500 missions and performances each year. The group is noted for its colonial attire and the use of — as the name suggests — bugles, fifes and drums to perform 18th century music.
“It takes a great deal of time and effort to take ancient music and orchestrate it for the instruments we play today,” he said.
He said preparations for the event began as early as last April with the production section — that is, the people who orchestrate and arrange the period music. While Fred said historically, musicians were employed as signalers and to provide cadence and rhythm to the different marches, the overall point of the group is not to re-enact a particular battle or section.
“What you see in our unit is historically not accurate, but it’s an embellishment; an emblem of all the military musicians that performed their functions in the Revolutionary War,” Fred said.
Marching preparations began in early December. And while the Fife and Drum Corps began in 1960, Fred said the history of the inaugural parade goes back much further. When George Washington traveled from Virginia to New York City for his 1789 inauguration, Fred said the soldiers that fought under Washington’s command during the Revolutionary War joined in the procession.
“It’s a time-honored tradition,” Fred said. “It goes back to the very birth of our country.”
The tradition will continue Monday on a slightly larger scale, and on a different route. The ceremonial swearing-in of the president will be followed by a luncheon with members of Congress. After that, Fred said the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, along with select few other elite groups, will await Obama’s arrival on the east steps of the Capitol. From there, Fred and the others will precede the president down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.
“We’re in close proximity to the commander in chief, and obviously security is a primary concern,” Fred said. “To execute our mission, we always have to keep that squarely in mind. Security is extremely robust in the environment we work in.”
He is quick to point out, though, that his colleagues are up to the challenge.
“I work with tremendous professionals, both musically and militarily. They’re just astounding human beings,” Fred said.
So, how does a band teacher from South Dakota end up escorting the leader of the free world to his second term in office?
Maybe his role as the drum major for the South Dakota State University Pride of the Dakotas Marching Band during the 1981 inauguration parade for Ronald Reagan foreshadowed future events. Fred says it’s just a combination of two of his favorite things: teaching and patriotism.
“It didn’t happen immediately. It was a progression,” he said. “It’s been a really incredible transition, but it makes sense when it’s all put together step by step.”
On the patriotic side of the equation, it was something Fred saw modeled by his World War II Army veteran father.
“He fulfilled the values that I prescribe to today,” he said. “He was a real inspiration to me.”
Fred and his wife, who is originally from Wagner, met and married in the Mitchell area. He started as the junior high band director in Mitchell in 1983, where he remained until 1992. It was also in Mitchell that he got involved with the 147th Army Band.
“I really treasured my teaching experiences in Mitchell and Rapid City,” Fred said. “Teaching isn’t all that different than being a commander or leader. You’re constantly training, you’re constantly showing younger troops the correct way to do things.”
He credits two individuals in particular in Mitchell with helping him advance to where he is today. One is Joe Pekas, who was the high school band director at Mitchell High when Fred began, and who served as a mentor and fellow National Guard member.
“He was so very receptive in sharing in his knowledge and experience,” Fred said.
The other standout is Bob Brooks, the then-principal at the school and Fred’s “best” boss.
“He really taught me how a boss should treat employees, and what a great man and a great role model,” Fred said. “Now that I’m called boss by my soldiers, I really draw a lot from Bob Brooks. He was a great impact.”
Eventually, the Ellweins relocated to Rapid City, which is where they were during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. After that, Dianne said reserve duty wasn’t quite good enough — for her or Fred.
“After 9-11, we just kind of wanted to do something, go serve our country for a couple years,” she said. “The Army liked us and we liked the Army.”
In 2004, they relocated to Washington, D.C.
“We were maybe a bit naïve about the whole thing,” he said. “We trusted in God that he had a plan that was to serve his kingdom by taking that step.”
Now Dianne, a sergeant major in the chaplain corps, oversees all the chaplain assistants in the Army National Guard in the country. And Fred, after progressing up the ranks to a leadership role in the 2005 inaugural parade, will now command the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.
“If someone told me 10, 15 years ago that I’d be doing what I’m doing today, I would have really questioned their sanity,” Fred said with a laugh. “It was the furthest thing from my mind.”
But, like Fred’s parents used to tell him, being born in America means hard work and dedication can realize any dream.
“Doggone, they were right on the mark with that one,” he said. “It’s pretty remarkable.”
Dianne is just as excited as Fred is about his new role.
“I will be watching and taping,” she said. “This is a very historical event. This is something that will be kind of a family heirloom to share.”
Dianne said she and the Ellwein children, except for a daughter in her second round of basic training at the Air Force Academy, will be some of the few close enough to see and cheer on the Old Guard, which serves as the official escort to the president during the proceedings.
“This is such a high-profile event, of course, because it comes only once every four years,” she said. “I’m thrilled for him. He’s a wonderful man, and … after 34 years of serving our country, he gets to do something of this magnitude.”
“It’s pretty inspiring. We’re just thankful to God for the opportunity.”
How do you top an event like that? Simple: You don’t.
Fred said he plans to retire within the next 12 months, making this parade all the more meaningful.
“Final missions for those of us in the military have a special meaning to begin with, and to have the honor of leading this organization … is pretty unbelievable,” he said. “I’m truly blessed to be in such a position.”
What has Fred and Dianne perhaps the most excited is the prospect of returning home.
“They always say home is where the heart is, and the people we love best are in South Dakota,” Dianne said.
“I have such a great connection to the place I was born and the people of South Dakota,” he said. “It’s a wonderful place, and to not come back would just be a tragedy.”
“We love the state. The sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned.”