A record-breaking reunion: Maranatha marching band recognized 20 years after historic walk
Twenty years ago, the Maranatha Christian Academy marching band made history by playing and marching continuously for 52 miles.
Thanks to the students’ accomplishment that hot summer day, the small private school still holds the Guinness world record for the longest musical march.
And this weekend, those dedicated performers were recognized during a 20-year reunion at the school’s Homecoming football game.
On Friday evening, during the game’s halftime, several of them walked out on the field at the football stadium behind St. Joseph Catholic School to a cheering crowd.
For band director Steve Gordon, the anniversary represented two parallel milestones for him.
Not only did he help students win the world record for longest musical march in 1998, but he had also helped another high school win the same world record one decade earlier.
In 1988, as a band director in southeast Kansas, he helped the Caney Valley High School marching band claim the world record, bringing it to the United States for the first time. The record had been previously dominated by Europe.
The students had performed and marched for 39.4 miles.
Ten years later, after the record had been broken a few times over, Gordon had no clue circumstances would lead him to claim victory once more.
In the mid-1990s, the Maranatha marching band received an invitation to perform in the 2000 Fourth of July parade in Washington D.C., a huge honor for the small private school.
But, it came with a cost.
Each marching band member needed $600 to attend and the group also desperately needed new uniforms. At the time, they were using hand-me-downs from De Soto High School.
In addition, the Maranatha music department was operating out of a tiny classroom, with students nearly bursting out of its seams. It needed new space.
The amount of money which needed to be raised worried Gordon.
But then, his son, Matt, came up with a suggestion: raise money by breaking the world record again.
Matt, now a married father of two, had been a toddler when his dad’s marching band broke the record in 1988 and one of his earliest and fondest memories was riding his bike alongside the band while the record was broken.
His father was hesitant at first because the 1988 record-breaking musical march in Caney had been a difficult experience he wasn’t keen on repeating.
“We didn’t train for it, we just went outside and gutted it,” Gordon told the Dispatch. “I lost the outer layer of skin on my thighs because we marched in sweaty material not suitable at all for marching that long of a distance. I didn’t want to do it again, but I’ve learned you should never swear to God you’ll never do something again.”
And so, in 1998, Gordon found himself saying yes to attempting another record-breaking march.
This time, however, he was going to get it right.
In the months leading up to the march, the Maranatha band, ranging from seventh graders to high school seniors, did three massive preparation walks at Shawnee Mission Park.
Also, many of the young musicians, including Gordon’s two teenage sons, walked to and from school everyday to physically prepare.
For Matt and his older brother, Pat, the walks to school were not easy because the family was living in Merriam at the time. Marantha is located just south of the Lackman Road and Shawnee Mission Parkway intersection.
In the weeks before the march, Gordon also continuously emphasized to the students about the importance of staying hydrated, treating blisters and encouraged them not to overexert themselves. The band members were allowed to quit the walk, or take breaks, when needed.
Finally, at 4 a.m. on Sept. 25 1998, the Maranatha marching band gathered outside the Great Mall of the Great Plains, an Olathe shopping center which has since been torn down.
An electrical storm forced the students to walk the first four hours in a circle around the air-conditioned mall, which was a luxury for the students on the hot summer day.
“I knew as soon as we walked out of the mall, it was going to be a long day,” Matt said, with a laugh.
In the intense heat, the Missouri National Guard pitched tents for the group’s central gathering area. Parent volunteers helped log students’ hydration and gave masages. Gatorade, breakfast from McDonalds and Hanes socks were all donated. A certified account also monitored the march, making sure time was met and everything was being done by the book. Gordon’s wife, a nurse, helped with medical attention.
Overall, 79 band members started the marathon; 21 finished.
Matt, an eighth-grade trombone player, was one of the students who bowed out by mid-afternoon because of severe cramping.
He volunteered in the recovery tent and helped take care of his marching peers by passing out water and giving massages.
Another band member Layne Whitehouse, who was an eighth-grade flute player at the time, said she took a break to take a nap and rejoined her peers for the last couple hours.
“So few people have done an endurance event by the time they’re in eighth grade, so it was a huge learning experience for me,” said Whitehouse, who is now a personal trainer for endurance athletes. “We were so young, we didn’t know our capabilities. We were definitely in a situation where we had to challenge ourselves.”
As the marchathon neared an end, the band was down to playing two songs: Hot Shots and Energizer
“The music didn’t sound pretty by the end of the day,” Gordon chuckled.
In the dark, more than 1,000 people from the Maranatha community lined the streets to witness history in the making. Many of them bowed their heads to pray.
“Maranatha is a small enough school where we’re all family, but when you see family actually happening before your eyes, it takes your breath away,” Whitehouse said.
That tight-knit sense of community remains strong two decades later.
Not all current Maranatha students are aware of the school’s historical moment, but Gordon said he often tells the story to his classes and once in a while, someone will ask about the Guinness plaque hanging on the band trailer’s wall.
“It’s part of the fabric of our school; it’s part of our legacy,” he said.