By Julia LeDoux, Pentagram Staff Writer
FORT MYER, Va. - Music has always been a part of Sgt. 1st Class Don Francisco’s life. It’s not surprising that when he joined the Army nearly 30 years ago he sought a way to combine his love of music and country to forge a career that has seen him play for everyone from the President to Queen Elizabeth to youngsters who have lost their parents.
Francisco, a senior instrumentalist with the The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, headquartered at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, will retire next month. He is well-known throughout the Military District of Washington not only as the Soldier who has run the Army Ten-Miler and Marine Corps Marathon while playing his fife, but as an ambassador of music who has spent countless hours interacting with the public at Twilight Tattoos and at performances all over the country and as a volunteer with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors or TAPS.
"I grew up with music," the New Orleans, La., native said. "I started taking piano lessons early on. In the sixth grade, we were introduced to wind instruments."
Francisco is also well-known for his visits to child development centers throughout MDW, where he has delighted countless children with his musical skill and historical knowledge. "You play everything from 'Sesame Street' to 'Yankee Doodle,'" he said. "I try to be an entertainer, educator. I want to make music fun. I want them to remember history, that the fife and drums played for General George Washington, played in the Civil War, the historical purpose, the living history."
He has also volunteered at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate.
"The music becomes a part of you," he said. "There's only one song you can play -- the right song at the right time."
Francisco joined the Army following his graduation from Saint Augustine High School.
"I went off to basic training at 17 years old," he said. "I was guaranteed Fort Polk, Louisiana, as my first assignment. I liked it because it was close to home for me."
Following basic training, he attended the Army School of Music in Virginia Beach.
"It was just a beautiful place," he said. "I learned a lot. I met a lot of great people. I graduated from there in 1984 and went to Fort Polk for a few years." When it came time to re-enlist, Francisco opted for a tour in Korea that would forever change his life.
"I fell in love with a young lady who I later married," Francisco said with a smile as he pointed to a picture of he and his wife. "Wound up staying in Korea for eight years. My first son was born in Korea."
Following their tour in Korea, the Franciscos returned to Fort Polk and later wound up at JBM-HH, where he has played in every presidential inauguration since 1992, saluting Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barrack Obama.
"It's surreal," he said of playing in a presidential inaugural. "It's an honor and a privilege."
Francisco stressed that every performance is important, no matter if the Fife and Drum Corps Corps is playing for the President or just "regular folks."
"Professionalism is our goal," he said, recounting the countless hours of practice that takes place before the Fife and Drum Corps performs.
"That's what it's about, fine tuning, memorizing music, playing and marching at the same time," he said.