Meet the University of Iowa’s first female drum majors, leaders and entertainers during WWII

Left: Rose Mettler and Mary Anwyl served as drum majors during WWII; right: the UI band performs during halftime of the Iowa v. Wisconsin game on Oct. 2, 1943. — photos courtesy of the University of Iowa Department of Special Collections and University Archives

When University of Iowa drum major Analisa Iole stepped onto the Kinnick Stadium football field this past fall — dressed in a military-style white suit with yellow trim and a tall feathered helmet (or shako, in band parlance), tossing and twirling a five-foot-long mace — she was celebrated as the University of Iowa’s first female drum major — then, after a little research, the first female drum major since World War II. Indeed, Iole marks a milestone in the history of the Hawkeye Marching Band and a long overdue step towards better representation of women in the role of drum major at UI.

But who were Iole’s predecessors, the women who served as leaders in the community while U.S. service members (including Nile Kinnick) were overseas? Iole herself couldn’t seem to track them down.

“My mother and I were also curious this summer and paid a visit to the Women’s Archives at the university library,” Iole said via email, days before Homecoming 2017, “but the only hard copy information we could find was on women who led the Highlanders which is indeed a great accomplishment, but the Highlanders were separate from the marching band.” (The UI Scottish Highlanders were an auxiliary band that also played at football games in the mid-20th century. Hundreds of women rushed to join the group in 1943 when they opened their ranks to women, and it quickly became the world’s largest all-female bagpipe band, performing seven world tours and for The Ed Sullivan Show and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.)

But the history of the Hawkeye Marching Band’s first female leaders is out there. I was able to track down archived newspaper articles, yearbooks, obituaries and living family members to tell the stories of Rose Mettler, Mary Anwyl and Doris Lotts — and unearth a fascinating figure who predated them all.

‘Make Way for the Ladies’

During WWII, University of Iowa women stepped (or in this case, high-stepped) into roles normally occupied by men, including, for the first time, as players in the Hawkeye Marching Band. In fact, female instrumentalists made up 50 percent of the previously all-male band, according to a press article from Oct. 4, 1943 entitled “Bandsmen Make Way for the Ladies.”

Newspaper clipping from the Charles B. Righter Papers collection in the University of Iowa Archives. — photo by Matthieu Biger

Despite Director of Bands Charles B. Richter’s 1944 observation that women were “the equal to men, except in their volume of playing,” the ranks of the Hawkeye Marching Band would go back to being exclusively men after 1945 and would remain that way until Title IX took effect in 1973.

But in 1943, the natural leaders of the new, woman-dominated Hawkeye Marching Band were women drum majors. Since the role of drum major was traditionally masculine and soldierly, that meant adaptations in uniform and equipment.

“Twirling began with men in the military and became popular in the 1940s during World War II. Drum majors would spin maces – long staffs with a ball at the top. Over time, however, the mace evolved into a shorter, lighter baton with rubber instead of metal ends,” Trenton Haltom, a former feature twirler for the Nebraska Cornhusker Marching Band, said in a 2017 interview with MEL Magazine. “Did women enter and then the baton developed, or did the technology of the baton improve allowing women to enter? I tend to think it’s the former.”

While modern drum majors like Iole still spin the mace and wear a more traditional, androgynous uniform, the lighter baton and more feminine outfits innovated during WWII set a precedent for the Hawkeye Marching Band’s Golden Girl baton twirlers.

“It is certainly very interesting to see the evolution of twirling costumes,” Chelsea Potter (née Russell), the Golden Girl from 2007-11, wrote to me. “Twirlers/majorettes used to wear costumes very similar to what a [drum major] would wear (although usually with a skirt), but now obviously it’s more of a bathing suit or even a two piece outfit.”

Potter said the glamorization of twirlers, especially in pop culture, may distract audiences from the breadth of skills and duties at hand. But it does signal the embrace of a feminine presence in a formerly masculine field.

Rose Mettler and Mary Anwyl

In October 1943, nearly two years after the U.S. entered WWII, Mettler (then Day) of Mason City and Anwyl (then DuMont) of Anamosa were pictured in Kinnick Stadium (then Iowa Field) dressed in circle skirts and blazers, sporting wide smiles. Mettler was the lead drum majorette, and Anwyl the twirling drum majorette, and as such the first women to lead the band in pregame and halftime exhibitions.

Photo courtesy of the University of Iowa Libraries Daily Iowan archives

Mettler’s family remembered her as an inspirational person, and her obituary identified her as “the first and only woman drum major at the University of Iowa during World War II.” Married to Dick Mettler, an airport manager, on Aug. 10, 1945, she accompanied her husband as a homemaker from Mason City to Davenport by way of El Paso, L.A., San Jose and Saudi Arabia.

As a Grinnell College student, Mettler apparently dabbled in clothing design; a Mason City Globe-Gazette article from May 9, 1946 says that Mettler “modeled a dress she had designed and made herself” at a Grinnell fashion show.

Anwyl’s 94-year-old husband remembers his then-fiancée’s twirling talent, honed in high school. Ray missed her band-leading days while fighting on the Western Front in WWII — he also served in Korea, retiring from the U.S. Air Force as first lieutenant — and said he doesn’t recall ever learning of Mary’s historic designation at the university. He does remember seeing her twirl in November 1945 as part of a “huge band” — likely the 90-piece Hawkeye Marching Band. When I told him Mary was the twirling drum majorette, Ray said it would have been “quite an honor, as she was only a freshman” in the liberal arts college.

In her dual role of drum major and feature twirler, Anwyl also exhibited her dexterity in solo performances at Iowa Field. Unlike current leadership positions in the Hawkeye Marching Band, there were no full-ride scholarships, so Anwyl waitressed at the hospital and worked at educational radio station WSUI, today an NPR member station. Her daily routine began at Currier Hall, where she lived, then she was off to band practice, work and back to the Pentacrest. Mary was also a pledge of the commerce sorority Phi Gamma Nu. She went on to work in the insurance industry for 30 years.

“She was a leader, a very sharp lady, who was very successful in her business career,” Ray said.

Doris Lotts

‘Stepping high,’ Doris Lotts is shown in a Nov. 11, 1945 Daily Iowan article. — photo courtesy of the UI Libraries Daily Iowan archive

In fall 1945, Doris Lotts of Ottawa, Illinois became one of two drum majors on the squad. Lotts directed the band while “flashing a smile,” as evident in a Nov. 17, 1945 Daily Iowan photograph. On that “Dad Day” she and fellow major Orley K. Anderson would have led the band in intricate formations, keeping time and signaling movements with a deft use of their mace.

Lotts most likely co-led the band during all nine regular season football games. She would have started as drum major the very month Japan signed surrender documents and therefore would be, in a sense, the first female drum major since WWII. Iole may not have claim to the title after all.

Mel Daly

Newspaper clipping from the Charles B. Righter Papers collection in the University of Iowa Archives. — photo by Matthieu Biger

An oversized scrapbook of band memorabilia — “oversize” is, in fact, an official designation by UI Special Collections — yielded further tangible evidence of Day, Anwyl and Lotts’ days leading the band. It also contained, to my excitement, information that had eluded search terms and digital sleuthing: Mary Ellen “Mel” Daly, an accomplished Wisconsin high school twirler, biked 260 miles to Iowa City with her younger brother Jim (father to actors Tyne and Tim Daly) in 1936 and joined the exclusively-male Hawkeye Marching Band squad in 1937, if not 1936 — years before the U.S. joined WWII.

Considering that, in the 1930s, a majorette was frequently the only female in a parade, Daly would have been “top banana of the campus, envied by the girls watching from the sidelines,” wrote Trenton Haltom in his master’s thesis. A photo from the 1939 UI yearbook shows Daly’s friends looking both awed and afraid as Daly demonstrates her twirling in a dorm room.

Mel Daly shows off her twirling talent. — screenshot from UI Hawkeye Yearbook, 1939, pg. 205, University of Iowa Digital Library
Mary and Jim Daly, pictured in the 1938 UI Hawkeye yearbook.

Daly recalled her role in a Sept. 7, 1975 interview with the San Antonio Express: “[Daly] laughs that with the heavy baton usually wielded by a man and wearing the stiff Shako hat of a drum major, she ‘did the whole works.’” That same article ups the ante, claiming that she became the first woman drum major in the Big 10.

In any case, Daly was the only female twirler/band major from the UI to join the war effort. Like her brother Jim and Ray Anwyl, she enlisted after Pearl Harbor, and was in active service in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years. Daly retired as a lieutenant colonel, the highest woman’s rank permitted during her service time, having served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

Forward March

The introduction of women into the role of drum major led to a broader understanding of the role itself. The position of Golden Girl, for example, began with Mary Anwyl as the featured twirler and grew into a popular, dazzling staple of halftime entertainment at Kinnick Stadium, one that supports a full-ride scholarship for recruited twirlers.

That hasn’t stopped sexism from creeping in. When Chelsea Potter changed her hair color from brunette to blonde, for example, she remembers some uncomfortable conversations with strangers commenting on what an improvement the alteration was. Overall, these “weird” and “inappropriate” encounters with audience members were rare, Potter said. The decision to wear sequined dresses or a more conservative uniform, like Anwyl’s, was ultimately up to her (Potter tended to feel most confident in sparkles).

“While the position is definitely feminized, I also feel like it’s what the twirler makes of it,” she said. “I know many feature twirlers who have balletic styles, and many who have more powerful type styles … I personally tried to embrace both styles and just be confident in myself either way.”

Potter hopes to see more diversity in the role of Golden Girl. A male twirler would bring the kind of freshness to the Hawkeye Marching Band that Iole brought as drum major last year — and as her forebearers did more than seven decades earlier. A woman of color as lead twirler or drum major would break another barrier.

Mettler, Anwyl and Lotts may have stepped in when men were in short supply, but they wielded the mace at arguably the most important moment. Football crowds would have been diminished by war efforts, but that same war meant that entertainment, smiles and distraction were invaluable. Daly, for her part, became a near mythic figure in the history of female drum majors, and appears to have channelled this fearless attitude into her wartime service.

“I hoped that once my appointment was public, someone from the community or an Iowa alum would be able to fill in the gaps for us,” Iole wrote to me after I sent my findings to her and Band Director Kevin Kastens. “Now I am very excited to give credit where it is due!”

I was very happy to do so and, maybe, further encourage women to audition and follow in those women’s steps. If you have any information on former UI drum majors and twirlers — going back to 1886’s Julius Lischer, or perhaps even earlier — you’re invited to email Kastens and his successor, so that their contributions to UI history may be recognized.

I would also encourage you to spend time with your elders and value their stories. “Memories is all we have in old age,” Ray Anwyl told me. I was thankful that he shared them.

Matthieu Biger tips his béret to all the band geeks in his life. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 236.

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