Just minutes before entering her audition on the snare drum, Susan Nowlin, now Susan Nowlin Batutis, braided her long hair and pulled it to the top of her head to show then director, James Dunlop that she could wear the iconic Blue Band top hat and look like “one of the guys”.
Dunlop was praised for his decision to enlist a rank of 12 majorettes in 1972 on the heels of Title IX being signed into law. But as the social climate in the country was shifting in the early 70s, the all-male tradition of the Blue Band drew the ire of the equality movement and the pressure to fully integrate the band didn’t let up and, in some ways, increased.
After months of debate that played out on campus and in the columns of The Daily Collegian, Dunlop publicly addressed the issue in the student-run newspaper when he claimed “women have never been denied auditions for the band, but since it has always been traditionally male, none have auditioned.” That changed in August 1973.
“I remember the whole thing like it was yesterday,” Nowlin Batutis said. “I just had this desire to show him that I could do it just like everybody else.”
Eight women auditioned for the band during “band camp,” a week-long tryout session that marked the start of the season. Three made it through to become the first female instrumentalists in the band since World War II, when women were temporarily accepted due to low male numbers. In addition, two were offered spots on the flag corps. Nowlin, percussion; Carol Gabler, French horn; Linda Hall, clarinet; Kathryne “Kit” Murphey, flags; and Debbie Frisbee, flags took their places in the ranks of one of the University’s most iconic organizations and helped to pave the way for women in the Blue Band.
As she stepped into the audition room in 1973, Nowlin nervously gripped her drum sticks and was prompted to site read and play “Proud Mary,” written by John Fogerty, but made popular by Tina Turner. The piece had difficult syncopation, but she was up to the task.
“I nailed it,” Nowlin Batutis said. “I found out later that Dr. Dunlop kind of ribbed some of the returning guys who flubbed it and told them ‘a girl played this,’ but I thought that was great and it made me feel really good.”
Following the musical test, the musicians moved on to the make-or-break marching stage of the audition. The drum Nowlin played in line was strapped to the musician’s leg for added support, but as she began to march another hurdle presented itself when the strap came loose and the drum nearly fell to the ground.
“The whole drum went sideways and I was trying to fix it while I marched,” Nowlin said. “But I kept on going and I was worried that might cut me out, but it didn’t and that was a relief because I knew I was good enough to be a part of that band.”
Nowlin would go on to be the rank leader of the drum line in 1976, her senior year.
The audition was less eventful, but equally as nerve-wracking for Kathryne “Kit” Murphey. Her father was a professor at the University and she took private lessons from Dunlop while she was in high school. She auditioned on trumpet,but came up short. Dunlop offered her a place on the flag corps, now known as the silks, along with Debbie Frisbee, now Frisbee Thalhamer.
“I was over the moon, but I don’t know who was happier, me or my dad,” Murphey said. “I was thrilled that I made it, but I continued to work hard on my instrument so that I could hopefully play in the band.”
The hard work paid off and the following year, she earned her spot as an instrumentalist. Building on the success of her pursuit for equality, she enlisted in the Navy after graduating from Penn State and became one of the first women to be a crewmember on an aircraft carrier.
“At that time women weren’t seen on carriers and I received much more backlash during that time than I did when I joined the band, which I think says a lot about how well-received we were at Penn State,” Murphey said.
While the first women in the band agree they felt accepted, there were still a few issues Dunlop had to address.
Following one of Nowlin's first performances with the band at Rec Hall, she returned to her gear to find the case for her snare drum had been taken. Only hers was missing.
The next day at rehearsal, she explained to Dunlop what happened and he asked if the incident made her want to quit.
“I told him it was the one thing that I always wanted and I was staying in the band no matter what,” Nowlin Batutis said. “He told me to keep my chin up and ignore anything they try to do to give me a hard time. And I did.”
The support from Dunlop within an organization steeped in tradition helped to define the Blue Band experience for the women, which 45 years later goes a long way in telling the story of the prestigious organization.
“At the time, I felt like there were a lot of people looking and paying attention to see how we would do. And I’m very proud of what we accomplished,” Murphey said. “To see how many women have joined the band over the years and how the traditions have only gotten better, it means everything to me.”