Dawn Christianson was 14-years-old when she joined the La Crosse Blue Stars Drum and Bugle Corps in 1972.

Christianson, who grew up on the North Side, was part of the color guard and a memorable season. It was the first year of Drum Corps International, and the Blue Stars ended up with their best finish ever — second place at the world championships in Whitewater, Wis.

“We were very good and competitive, and we thought we were going to win in 1972, but the importance of that year didn’t really sink in for me then,” Christianson said.

“Now, of course, I realize I was part of something big and exciting,” she said.

The La Crosse Blue Stars are being honored this summer as one of the founding members of Drum Corps International. DCI marks its 40th anniversary season with special events at the world championships in Indianapolis in early August.

Christianson, who now lives in Onalaska and has been a Blue Stars’ volunteer for many years, will be there today along with other 1972 alumni at the corps’ home show, River City Rhapsody. The Blue Stars and six other world-class corps will compete at the show.

Christianson marched with the Blue Stars for five years. She said she bought a commemorative DCI 40th anniversary patch this season. “Believe me, I earned that patch,” she said.

Denise Felton-Pagonis, a La Crosse native who has directed the Blue Star Cadets, already was a drum corps veteran at 14-years-old in the rifle line in 1972.

“It was an amazing year, and DCI was new and coming up,” Felton-Pagonis said. “The corps was a tight-knit group and the city was really behind us.”

The activity has changed greatly, she said, and corps have more sophisticated and choreographed shows.

“I can’t believe how much theater goes on in the show,” Felton-Pagonis said. “The shows have reached a new and very high competitive level.”

The Blue Stars returned to world-class status in 2006 after many years as a top 3 small corps in Division II and III.

“The Blue Stars always have had an excellent corps, no matter in what division,” Felton-Pagonis said. “But it’s great to be back in world class. It warms my heart.”

River City Rhapsody, known as Mississippi Rhapsody before the 1990s, has been staged for more than 40 years. Next season the Blue Stars will mark their 50th anniversary.

Billy Happel, a La Crosse native and 1970 Logan High School graduate, marched with the Blue Stars for 10 years. He played French horn and was drum major in 1972.

Happel said drum corps is so different than his days with the Blue Stars.

“The travel, food, cost to run a corps, amount of instruction and staff, souvies, volunteers — all of that has changed so much in 40 years,” Happel said. “But one thing hasn’t — the experience. That will never change.

“The gut feeling those kids get when they walk onto the field Friday night is the same feeling I had 40 years ago,” he said.

River City Rhapsody was always fun because family and friends were in the crowd, Happel said.

“There is nothing better than performing for a home crowd,” Happel said. “Even though most of today’s members aren’t from the La Crosse area, they still love performing there in what has to be one of the most beautiful settings for a show.

“They really do get a feel of what it was like to be from the area and have a great respect for the tradition of the Blue Stars,” he said.

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