Twenty-third Marine Band Director Lieutenant Colonel Dale L. Harpham, USMC (Ret.), was in sixth grade when, at his brother’s urging, he purchased his first trombone for one dollar. With the trombone in hand and the aid of mail-order music lessons and extraordinary talent, he began to excel on the instrument. While still in sixth grade, Harpham attended a concert by the United States Marine Band in a nearby city during the band’s concert tour. In his own words, he “promptly fell in love with the organization” and resolved to gain membership.
Harpham’s first music teacher was Worthy Tuttle, a retired circus cornetist and conductor of the Pleasant Lake, Ind., town band. Under Tuttle’s instruction, Harpham’s abilities came to the attention of David Hughes, instrumental supervisor for the county schools. With coaching from Hughes and, later from Hughes’ brother, L. Rush Hughes, Harpham advanced so rapidly that he was sent to Fort Wayne, Ind., for further study with music professors Angelo Cafaro and Vern McDermott.
By the time Harpham graduated from high school in 1935, his brother Dee had joined the Marine Band as a trombonist. At Dee’s suggestion, Dale moved to Washington, D.C., where he studied with Robert E. Clark, principal trombonist and soloist with the band.
On July 8, 1935, Harpham was accepted in to the Marine Band by then Director Captain Taylor Branson. At that time, members of the Marine Band were required to perform on both wind and string instruments; Harpham performed on the cello with the Marine Chamber Orchestra as well as playing trombone with the band. He was frequently featured as a soloist on the band’s radio broadcasts, and was soon advanced to the position of assistant principal trombone with the Marine Band. His versatility also included serving as vocalist and concert moderator, as well as narrator for such features as Peter and the Wolf, Tubby the Tuba, and The Man Who Invented Music.
After years of concerts, tours, and White House ceremonies, Harpham began playing a leadership role as leader of the Marine Band’s dance band, as well as conducting the band, orchestra, and brass choir at numerous events. He was appointed Assistant Director of the United States Marine Band May 1, 1955, a post he held until his appointment as 23rd Director, April 28, 1972.
As Director of the United States Marine Band, Harpham served as musical advisor to the White House and conducted the Marine Band at numerous White House and State functions, including the inauguration of former President Richard Nixon, a special performance by the orchestra in Yugoslavia at the President’s request, and a performance at President Nixon’s home in San Clemente, Calif.
Harpham’s musical and interpretive abilities were often showcased when on tour with the Marine Band or performing at the White House. On one occasion at the White House, Harpham’s conducting came to the attention of the distinguished conductor Leopold Stokowski who later wrote, “You have trained a splendid orchestra and I know what it costs in effort and thought in order to do that. Your performance that night was unusually vital and had a kind of electricity that is rare.”
Harpham retired as a lieutenant colonel on Oct. 31, 1974, after 39 years of service. Following his retirement, Harpham devoted his time and talents to guest conducting young musicians. It is through this facet of his work that he became known and loved to hundreds of young musicians with whom he came in contact. Harpham once commented, “I am a member of the Marine Band today because of the warm understanding and assistance of the public school music teacher.” Throughout his life, Harpham did his best to return the favor by sharing his musical gifts with young people. Possessed with penetrating musical insight and a keen sense of humor, Harpham brought to his musical appearances the most precious of all musical gifts: the innate ability to inspire.
Harpham was a longtime member of the prestigious American Bandmasters Association and had served on its board of directors as well as on the committee for its research center. He also was a member of the Gridiron Club, the Alfalfa Club, and the Military Order of the Carabao.