Kenneth Force, who became a standard-bearer of military pageantry during nearly half a century as director of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Regimental Band, a mainstay of ceremonies and celebrations including the president’s inaugural parade, died Oct. 7 at a nursing facility in Rye, N.Y. He was 83.

The cause was complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said a former student, Marianne Lepre.

Capt. Force, who served from 1971 to 2016 as music director at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., devoted nearly his entire professional life to the tradition of military music, his baton an unflagging marker of time in marches and other tunes that for many Americans stir deep emotions with just their first bars.

He took up the trumpet as a schoolboy in Queens and honed his skills in circus bands, as a member of the Radio City Music Hall orchestra and in the pit at Broadway shows. During a stint in the Army in the 1950s, he encountered a group of visiting British military bands that set him on his path.

“It was like St. Paul on the Damascus Road,” Capt. Force told the New York Times years later. “Off the ferry marched the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Plymouth with pith helmets and a sound like an organ. You could actually hear their feet march when they went piano. And I just said, ‘This is it, man. I got to do that in this country.'”

At the Merchant Marine Academy, Capt. Force modeled his band, its music selection and its marching style on those of the Royal Marines. “That’s something you just don’t see in the United States,” said his successor at the academy, Lt. Cmdr. Bob Nixon, who is now retired.

At the academy, Capt. Force led midshipmen and women who aspired to be “mariners, not musicians,” as he put it. Yet under his leadership, they created a formidable ensemble, fit to play for the president, as they did in the parade along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington that is a highlight of inaugural festivities.

“Anytime you have the opportunity to perform in front of the president, it is a thrill of a lifetime,” Capt. Force told Newsday in 2009. The fact that his musicians played the same song before the reviewing stand at every inauguration in no way lessened the rush. The tune was “A Life on the Ocean Wave,” and to Capt. Force the tradition never got old.

He first led a band before a president at Richard M. Nixon’s second inaugural celebration in 1973. He could not hide his disappointment in 1977 when Jimmy Carter, who had promised to bring a plain touch to the White House, scaled down inaugural grandeur and walked the parade route rather than riding in a motorcade.

“He didn’t want ruffles and flourishes and ‘Hail to the Chief,'” Capt. Force told the Times. “He said it was too pompous. And the country didn’t like that. People think the president deserves special music. People like ceremony and no one does it better than a band. When you lose your ceremony, you lose a lot.”

Another disappointment came in 1985, when Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his second term. Temperatures dropped so low on that frigid January day that trumpet valves froze. The oath of office was moved indoors, and the parade was canceled

Capt. Force was back for the inauguration of George H.W. Bush, twice for Bill Clinton and twice for George W. Bush. By the time President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, the band leader’s longevity was assumed to be a record of some kind.

At that point, ill health made it impossible for him to march with his band in the parade, but he watched dutifully from the sidelines.

Kenneth Richard Force, whose father was a banker, was born in Queens on March 24, 1940.

He served in the Army and studied trumpet at the Naval School of Music, which accepted musicians from other branches of the military. As a member of an Army band in 1957, he performed in his first inaugural parade – Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second – and recalled his awe when he caught a glimpse of the president.

“I was a young kid,” Capt. Force recalled. “We stood in front of the Treasury Building. We were told to look straight ahead, but I heard applause and looked over to the side. It just happened that the car was passing with President Eisenhower standing up with his two arms in the air. It was a moment I’ll never forget.”

He performed with the Radio City Music Hall orchestra and on Broadway while attending the Manhattan School of Music, where he wrote his master’s thesis on British band concepts.

After his schooling, he was a high school band director in Port Chester, N.Y., and took his students to the Rose Bowl parade. According to Newsday, a Merchant Marine Academy alumnus happened to see the performance and referred him to the academy, where he was then hired as music director. Capt. Force lived for decades on the academy grounds.

His marriages to Catherine Sloan, Barbara Hopkins and Marilyn Uribe ended in divorce. Survivors include a stepson, John Uribe, and two grandchildren.

Capt. Force arranged band music and composed original pieces, including a march for the first lady, written for Hillary Clinton, and one for presidential pets.

Ever attuned to history, he helped organize an effort to erect a statue of John Philip Sousa, the military march composer, that was dedicated in 2005 at the Marine Barracks Annex in Southeast Washington.

He also helped win landmark designation for the home of George M. Cohan, the composer of the World War I-era patriotic song “Over There,” who lived in Kings Point near the Merchant Marine Academy. The regimental band, much to Capt. Force’s pride, was designated “George M. Cohan’s Own.”

“What we do doesn’t change,” Capt. Force told the Times in 2009, reflecting on the tradition in which he and his regimental band followed. “In many ways we’re a walking museum, something from another age.”

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