Alumni News Category
For 35 years, members of the Air Force ROTC’s Marching Cadets stood guard at the Bell Tower to honor veterans on Pearl Harbor Day. At noon Saturday, members of the now-dissolved fraternity are again meeting at the tower to pay their respects.
Founded in 1960, the Marching Cadets (MCs) served as the Air Force ROTC drill team, presenting the colors at football and basketball games and marching in local parades while spinning, throwing and catching M1 rifles. As its annual service project, the organization would guard the Bell Tower for 24 hours every Dec. 6-7 and hold a wreath laying ceremony.
A Marching Cadet at the Bell Tower in 1977
“Even though it was usually right in the middle of exams, we would go out and take turns for an hour at a time at the Bell Tower in groups of four or five,” says Marching Cadet Will Compton, a 1988 graduate. “It was modeled after the tomb of the unknown solider.”
Though they won’t be in uniform or guarding the tower this year, a group of Marching Cadets plans to honor World War II veteran Millie Beasey with an informal ceremony and wreath laying. Beasey served in the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, an all-female, all-black postal battalion that helped deliver mail to the front lines in Europe.
T.C. Moore, a Marching Cadet and 1988 graduate, says the group plans to talk to Beasey about her experiences, explain the significance of the tower and share some stories from past ceremonies. Moore and Compton say that while Dec. 6 always used to feel like the coldest night of the year, it was a special one for the cadets.
“It was just a unique feeling to be standing there,” Moore says. “It just gave you a time to reflect on what sacrifices people in the military have made and what they gave up, and you knew you were doing your own little part in helping honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Compton delivered a speech at his first ceremony in 1986. He says having the chance to speak about the events of Dec. 7, 1941, in front of a Pearl Harbor survivor is something he’ll never forget.
“It’s a very humbling experience,” he says. “To actually have the Pearl Harbor survivor present certainly evoked images of what they went through.”
As a freshman, Moore noticed those wearing the Marching Cadets’ red-and-white cords always seemed to have it together and asked how he could join. Both Moore and Compton pledged in spring of 1986 and were inducted the weekend of the North Carolina Azalea Festival parade in Wilmington, N.C., one of the biggest events the group participated in.
Both Compton and Moore served in the Air Force after graduation. Moore now works for the Air Force as a civilian contractor and Compton is a Delta Airlines pilot.
Over the years, the Marching Cadets became an incredibly tight-knit group of men and women. And once members were initiated, they were in for life, even if they graduated or dropped out — Moore says it isn’t uncommon to see graduates come back to meetings or help out at events.
The group fell on hard times in the ’90s when Air Force ROTC’s national headquarters withdrew its sponsorship and membership declined from about 30 ROTC members to less than 20. Though the Marching Cadets fraternity dissolved in 1996, its legacy hasn’t — the Air Force ROTC guards the Bell Tower overnight for Veterans Day and the cadets held a reunion in 2011.
After the reunion, Compton, Moore and other Raleigh-area members decided to bring back “team eats,” a dining-out tradition from their college days. They try to get together for dinner once a month.
Kat Robichaud received her degree from NC State in graphic design in 2006 and then spent seven years touring with a glam rock band called The Design. After her band broke up last October, she got a call to audition for NBC’s The Voice.
Since then, her life has been a whirlwind as she flew back and forth from Raleigh to Los Angeles for auditions, then tapings and, finally, live shows. With audience votes and saves from the show’s coaches, she made it to the Top 10, no easy feat. If you want to hear Robichaud sing, she’ll be performing Friday on WUNC-FM’s “The State of Things” at noon (EST). (If you’re outside the listening area, you can hear the live stream by going to the show’s website.)
We sat down with Robichaud this week to talk about her experiences and her plans for the future.
What would surprise people most about the inner workings of the show? The way that it’s shot is pretty much how it is….Once you get to the live shows, though, time is really of the essence. We’d get a group song the day before the performance; it was like crunch time. We would have to go up there, learn our lyrics, do a good job, learn the choreography. … And you’re not sleeping very much. They’re constantly reminding you to take care of yourself, to get enough rest, to keep yourself hydrated, to take Vitamin C.
You wore some interesting costumes, from leather pants for Alanis Morrissette’s “You Oughta Know” to a flamenco-inspired dress for Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” Did you pick out the clothes or did the show choose? Each person put together a “look book” of outfits we liked. I put pictures of David Bowie, Florence and the Machine, the Rocky Horror Picture Show… The head of the wardrobe department would go out shopping and come back with racks of clothing. I would say, “I don’t like this,’’ or “Oh, my god, I love this so much.” She really got me. And then the wardrobe fittings took four or five hours.
What were some of best coaching tips you received? There were two vocal coaches that we worked with….They are legends, they are fantastic. I learned — relearned, really — a lot of stuff that I’d forgotten. Proper warm-up techniques, loosening your jaw…. pushing from your diaphragm. CeeLo [Green, Robichaud’s celebrity coach] really wanted to be myself, which became harder and harder – but not because of the show. The show was always extremely supportive. It was like, “Kat wants to crowd surf? Let her do it.” …. The show was supportive; America wasn’t as supportive at times.
If you had stayed on the show, what would your next song have been? “Applause” by Lady Gaga. It would have been awesome.
Do people in Raleigh recognize you? We were at the flea market. Some lady jumped out, “I know you — you did a great job on The Voice! ” and then she disappeared back into the circle. Some people don’t realize I’m not really like that famous, and they think they can’t talk to you…We had a waitress the other night, and at the very end of the meal, she’s like, “I hope I’m not bothering you…” We’re like, “Dude do you want to sit down with us? Do you want a glass of wine?” Because this is actually super enjoyable for me.
What’s next? Are you going to be The Voice finale show? I am leaving Monday for L.A. to prepare for the reunion show Dec. 17. The Top 20 will all be performing… And I am writing a new album. I’ve got some great material. I’m going to go on tour. So it’s write, tour, be happy.
—Sylvia Adcock ’81
When the kids run around in Oxford, N.C., in the summer and see town staple Charlie Easton and his full white beard hanging well below his chin, they ask the inevitable question: Is he Santa?
“What I tell them is that I’m Santa’s best friend and I help him out,” says Easton.
And it’s this time of the year when Easton, 76, says he helps his friend out the most by embodying the jolly old elf, donning the red suit as “Santa” Charlie in holiday parades and at Triangle malls and private functions.
“It’s the best job I ever had,” says Easton, who graduated from NC State’s Agricultural Institute and worked for 35 years in the textile industry. “I tell people I’m just a granddaddy whose grandchildren got too big to sit on his lap. So now I get to hold everybody else’s.”
Easton can be seen regularly sitting on his throne at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, his main station for helping Santa out the last seven years. He started about 10 years ago when he first rode as Kris Kringle in the Oxford Christmas parade. He has his own Santa business card and had to go through a job interview that would objectify candidates if it was any other profession. “They just look at you and see what you look like,” Easton says.
His routine starts in early November with his annual swig of cold medicine to fight the cough he knows he’s going to get. He and other area Santas get a tour at Toys “R” Us to acquaint themselves with what the children ask for. The only day Easton gets off during the season is Thanksgiving. He works in four-to-five-hour shifts and will continue to hold babies and judge the naughty and nice right up until 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Every Christmas season, Easton comes up with a theme to develop. This year, it includes his charge to each child who sits on his lap with telling their parents they love them on Christmas morning. (“That’s the greatest gift they can give,” he says.) And he has a little toy, Pete the Penguin, which he says is usually a pretty good remedy to get an unruly or scared child engaged.
There are his regulars who come by, like a group of ladies who are in their 90s who come by every year to have their picture taken with him. And there are always firsts for him, like last year when he got to hold 9-month-old quintuplets.
Or like the time when a daughter requested her mother and father sit on his lap for a pic, only to be surprised by their other daughter, who had been deployed in Afghanistan for 15 months, popping around the corner. “Everybody cried that day,” he says. “Even Santa.”
In his decade of evoking Santa’s spirit, Easton has seen things change. He’s had to deal with the explosion of Elf on the Shelf, the popular toy that “watches” children’s behavior up until the day of Christmas. Children’s wants have changed from footballs and dolls to iPhones and iPads.
And kids have become more inquisitive about how Santa delivers all those toys. “You know, a lot of houses don’t have chimneys,” he says. “I tell them I have a mouse that can get in their house and let me in.”
But what hasn’t changed is Easton’s sense of joy this time of year and his faith in the spirit of Christmas.
“You’d be surprised at the number of children who come up and ask that all the children who don’t have anything get a present from me this year,” he says. “I still believe in Santa.”
Ken Blackburn was, in 1983, an unknown junior in aerospace engineering at NC State who had but one dream — to own the sky.
And it was on this day 30 years ago that Blackburn’s anonymity died and his dream took off as he set the world record for indoor paper-airplane flight in Reynolds Coliseum with his cutting-edge pulp glider, “Bossy,” that cut through the air for 16.89 seconds.
“‘Bossy,’ the record breaking plane, is constructed from a piece of standard-sized typing paper,” the Technician reported, quoting Blackburn as describing his design as being “highly modified” from a design he saw in a book in elementary school.
That November day had been a long time coming for Blackburn. According to the Technician‘s account, he’d been cradling that dream since the sixth grade. He had broken the record, which had been on the books since 1975, by three seconds a year before the historic flight in Reynolds. Unfortunately, there was no official representative from Guinness World Records to record that initial flight.
Even on the record day in 1983, “Bossy” wouldn’t have joined Blackburn on the unfolded pages of history if not for a simple twist of fate taking down another of his planes. “During warm-up, ‘Old Betsy,’ his previous record-breaking plane, gave her life as she drifted into the speaker system in the rafters of Reynolds Coliseum,” the Technician reported.
Ken Blackburn’s launch was captured by a Technician photographer.
According to the story, only six people were on hand to see history that day. But that, and the wear-and-tear that paper airplanes can inflict on their launchers, didn’t deter Blackburn from enjoying his glory. “Blackburn said that his right arm would be sore for the next few days, but this did not take away from the excitement of his accomplishment.” the Technician‘s account read.
Blackburn, who graduated from NC State in 1985, continued his upward trajectory after college. According to his website, he set another record in 1987 with a 17.2-second flight. He wrote and published The World Record Paper Air Plane Book. And he set another record in 1998 inside of Atlanta’s Georgia Dome with an airplane that whirled and twirled for 27.6 seconds.
According to Guinness World Records’ website, the current record for a paper airplane’s flight stands at 29.2 seconds and was set by someone else in Japan in 2010.
When millions of Americans tune in to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Thursday morning, 1976 alumnus Mike Trageser will have a slightly different point of view. As a parade volunteer, he’ll greet thousands of New York City residents and tourists as he escorts a float through Manhattan.
“It truly is a great experience,” Trageser says. “To be in that parade and walk down the streets of New York and there’s just thousands of people that are there, it’s so much fun.”
This is Trageser’s third year as a float escort. In 2011, he escorted South Dakota’s float dressed as a park ranger and in 2012 he escorted “The Big Apple,” a New York-themed float, dressed as a taxi cab driver. This Thanksgiving, he’ll walk alongside the Marion-Carole Showboat float and its entertainers, the cast of A&E’s Duck Dynasty, as they make their way down the parade’s 2.5-mile course.
While the parade may seem larger-than-life to those watching on TV, Trageser says being there in person is a completely different experience.
“You feel like you’re on Main Street, U.S.A.,” he says. “It’s one of the world’s biggest cities and you feel like you’re on Main Street, U.S.A.”
Just a few years ago, Trageser never could have predicted that he’d be a part of it.
That changed after a conversation with one of his employees at the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, Penn., where Trageser works as the director of marketing services. The employee had just finished walking around the casino floor asking customers to pick a balloon and pop it to see if they’d won a prize.
“I was joking around with her and said, ‘You really handled those balloons well,’ and she said, ‘Well, I should, I’m a balloon handler in the Macy’s parade,’” Trageser says.
To be in the parade, volunteers need to either work for Macy’s, be related to an employee or be sponsored by an employee who’s in the parade. Trageser’s employee, who also works at a Macy’s part-time, offered to get him in as a balloon handler if he completed the necessary training. But he said he didn’t have time. She then suggested becoming he become a float escort, which requires no training.
“I’m in,” Trageser said.
Trageser quickly realized what he likes most about escorting a float is the same thing he likes about working in customer service: Having the chance to make people happy.
“You walk down the street, shake hands and you touch a lot of peoples’ lives that day,” he says.
As he was making his way along the route in 2011, he came across a boy wearing a hat that said, “Cancer sucks.”
“I just went over and shook his hand and wished him a happy Thanksgiving and he had a big smile on his face,” Trageser says. “That was just really, really touching.”
The same year, he shook the hand of an elderly woman watching the parade with her family and wished her a happy Thanksgiving.
“She just brightened up,” Trageser says. “You could just tell that she was enjoying that parade. It just brings joy to a lot of different people.”
Being in the parade has also given Trageser a deeper appreciation for the work that goes in to it each year. With 82 floats and more than 10,000 volunteers and performers, the event requires months of planning and coordination to pull off.
“The team that puts this parade together just does an incredible job to make it happen,” he says. “People don’t see all of the work that goes in to this.”
On the day of the parade, Trageser arrives at a hotel near the 34th Street Macy’s at about 6 a.m. From there, he picks up his costume and is bused to the staging area along Central Park West.
Once his float leaves the staging area, Trageser says it takes about an hour to reach the end of the route. Depending on where his float is in the parade, that could be any time between 11 a.m. and noon. After that, all Trageser has to do is drop off his costume and he’s free to leave for his brother’s home in New Jersey for dinner.
Trageser says he hopes to continue his participation in the parade and wants to be there for the 100th anniversary in 2026.
Jessica Roush, a 2010 NC State graduate living in Milwaukee, Wis., has been listening to public radio for as long as she can remember.
“My parents are pretty avid NPR listeners. Growing up we would listen in the car and on road trips,” says Roush, who works as a textile designer for Kohl’s department stores.
So when Roush heard about the My Sound World competition on Threadless, an online site that designs and sells clothing, she jumped at the chance to design the official T-shirt for NPR.
Roush’s design, “NPR: Plugged In,” features a pair of over-the-ear headphones topped with urban, suburban and rural landscapes and the cord spelling out NPR below. It was inspired by how Roush listens at work.
A few weeks later, her design was selected out of more than 150 submissions as the winner. She was at work when she received the email.
“It was fantastic, I was completely flabbergasted,” Roush says. “I totally screamed at work and everybody kind of gathered around my desk. I assumed I wasn’t going to win anything, so it came as a huge surprise.”
In addition to having her design sold as the official NPR T-shirt, Roush won a cash prize, Threadless gift credit, a special edition iPod dock, an autographed copy of “This is NPR” and a private tour of NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Roush plans to take the trip over her Christmas vacation and is looking forward to visiting the NPR music office, home of the Tiny Desk Concert series, and putting faces with the names of some of her favorite radio personalities.
“I really lucked out,” Roush says. “A lot of people I know that have entered on Threadless have dozens of entries that don’t win and sometimes you just luck out, so I was really fortunate.”
Though Roush designed for NC State’s Art2Wear in 2009 and double-majored in art and design and textile technology, she says designing the shirt was different than any of the work she did at State, where she was an Anni Albers Scholar.
“In school it was more print pattern-based and more dying and weaving and things like that,” Roush says. “It wasn’t until after I graduated that I started to do more graphics.”
She says designing a T-shirt for a Threadless competition was also different than the work she does at Kohl’s.
“It’s a younger audience and a younger buyer versus Kohl’s,” Roush says. “I don’t get to do as many younger or kid-friendly designs.”
Roush says entering design competitions on Threadless is a way for her to do some “work outside of work” and broaden her portfolio.
Though she had only entered a few times before winning the NPR contest, Roush says she plans to enter many more in the future.
Roush’s “NPR: Plugged In” T-shirt is available online in the NPR shop.
Richard Holcomb loved growing up around his family’s feeder pig farm in Whiteville, N.C. — so much so that he considered going into farming himself. When his family moved to Conway, S.C., he worked on local farms as hired help.
But when Holcomb graduated from high school in 1979, he says the conventional wisdom in farming was “get big or get out.”
“I got out,” he says.
He studied computer science at the University of South Carolina for three years and and then started his master’s in the same field at NC State in 1983. A year later, he left State to work in the software industry for more than two decades, founding and investing in more than 30 local software companies. Along the way, he returned to State and completed his master’s degree in in 1989.
“Software when I started it in my early 20s was really exciting,” Holcomb says. “The IBM PC had just been invented, things like Microsoft Windows had just come out. Everything was new — everything needed to be done. A small company with just a couple people could make a really big difference.”
But by the early 2000s, Holcomb says the industry had changed and the days of garage startups were all but gone. Much of his workdays were spent attending business meetings and watching PowerPoint presentations. Holcomb says it was time for him to change course.
Richard Holcomb tending to the chickens (Photos courtesy of Jamie DeMent, Coon Rock Farm)
In 2004, he moved from his inside-the-Beltline home in Raleigh to the 65-acre Coon Rock Farm in Hillsborough, N.C. to get in on the local and organic farming movement.
“It was time for something new, and the organic and local farming movement was just starting to really take off,” Holcomb says. “I decided if I’m still young enough to make that move, I’ll follow what I wanted to do when I was 17. [Organic farming is] almost like being 20 again because it’s so exciting and fun to do. It doesn’t involve a lot of meetings and it never involves a PowerPoint.”
Today, Holcomb and his staff of five full-time employees and five to seven interns grow more than 100 varieties of heirloom vegetables without chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. They also raise chickens and grass-fed livestock on the farm and on 300 acres of land in and around Orange County.
On the farm, sheep, pigs and cows are rotated through the gardens to eat weeds and provide natural fertilizer for the crops.
“Although it’s the farming they used to do 1,000 years ago, it’s exciting and fresh,” Holcomb says. “There’s a lot of new, young people getting into it and the market is growing very rapidly.”
With the ramped-up use of pesticides and genetically modified crops in mainstream agriculture, Holcomb says the growing popularity of organic foods is due largely to health concerns.
“You can look at different scientific studies if you want,” he says, “but at the common sense level, if I’m spraying something on a plant that’s going to kill a bug and then I’m going to eat the plant, is it going to kill me?”
Holcomb purchased a farm-to-table restaurant in Durham, N.C. called Piedmont in 2010 and a produce delivery service called Bella Bean Organics in 2012. According to Holcomb, Coon Rock Farm makes an estimated 500-1,000 shipments each week through Bella Bean and Community Supported Agriculture, another delivery service. Coon Rock also sells produce and meats at various Triangle farmers’ markets.
Holcomb says he’s committed to showing that it’s possible to eat local, healthy and organic foods year round, even if it means getting up early on a cold January morning or working through a hot summer afternoon. Although he admits working in extreme heat and cold is one of the hardest parts of his job, Holcomb says days when the weather is just right are by far the best and most rewarding.
“Seventy degrees. The sun’s not too bright, but it’s not cloudy. It’s perfect to be outside planting seed or picking okra or riding the tractor,” Holcomb says. “It’s days like this that make farming worthwhile.”
A little over a year ago, Susannah Brinkley and a friend launched an experiment. They hoped that it would help them — and others — learn a lot more about all the cool places and amazing people that can be found in the Triangle. All they needed was a smart phone, an Instagram account and the help of hundreds of strangers.
And guess what? It worked.
Susannah Brinkley, with some of the photos (below) she shared from her recent day with the baton.
Brinkley, a 2011 graduate of NC State’s College of Design, and her friend, Brittany Iery, recently celebrated the first anniversary of RDU Baton. Brinkley and Iery describe RDU Baton as a collaborative photo project in which strangers with only one thing in common — their love of the Triangle — spend a day taking photos of places and people that make Raleigh, Durham or Chapel Hill special to them. They then use Instagram to share those photos with the 2,000 people who follow RDU Baton online before handing off the virtual baton to someone else to do the same thing the next day.
“It’s a neat way to discover new parts of where you live,” says Brinkley, a freelance graphic designer. “I had lived in Raleigh for six years, and had my own little corner. It’s really nice to be opened up to other people’s little corner.”
When Brinkley took the baton recently to celebrate RDU Baton’s first anniversary, she shared photos of the “Listening Vessels” near the Brickyard, a cup of coffee she enjoyed at Scratch Bakery in Durham, a view of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens and the pizza she enjoyed at Lilly’s Pizza in Raleigh’s Five Points for lunch.
Others have recently shared photos of an alley in downtown Raleigh, a scene from the Kings & Queens Bowling League and the insides of a gym in Seaboard Station. One recent “runner” proudly posted a photo of an NC State cup. “Gotta show some pack pride,” she wrote. “I’m so glad to be part of this wonderful community of Raleigh. I have met some truly amazing people here!”
About 250 people took turns holding the baton during the first year. Brinkley and Iery manage the project in their spare time, so they only hand the baton out on weekdays. They also ask that those holding the batons steer clear of an Instagram staple – the selfie (or self portrait, for those not familiar with the term).
“We want people to enjoy their day with the baton,” Brinkley says. “We want to see a normal day in their life, showcasing the things they like to do.”
There are a few other rules — post only photos you took during your day with the baton, don’t post more than 6 to 8 photos during your day, and write captions to let others know what they are seeing — but Brinkley and Iery otherwise leave it up to each day’s photographer to decide what to shoot and share.
“Personally, I like to hear their stories,” Brinkley says.
Brinkley and Iery got the idea from a similar project in New York known, appropriately enough, as NYCbaton. They got permission to start a similar site in the Triangle, and have been surprised and pleased with the results so far.
“We like to watch where the baton is going,” Brinkley says. “One time we were out to eat together, and we looked on Instagram and someone had posted from the same restaurant where we were. That’s so awesome.”
RDU Baton has tilted toward Raleigh, Brinkley says, with few submissions from people in Durham and Chapel Hill. Brinkley says she hopes that changes, and that they welcome “runners” from anywhere in the Triangle. Slots in November have already been assigned and there are about 30-40 people are on a list waiting their turn with the baton.
Brinkley moved to Charlotte, N.C., earlier this year. But she has no plans to abandon RDU Baton, at least for the foreseeable future. She enjoys being known as a “baton girl.”
“It’s cool,” she says, “that people are excited about it.”
Bill Sears grew up near the intersection of High House Road and Davis Drive in Cary, N.C. But when he was a kid, Davis Drive was a dirt road known as Stone Road and High House Road was a dirt road without a name. The land was a farm, part of some 1,000 acres that had been in his mother’s family for eight generations.
“It was very much part of the country,” says Sears, who went on to become an architect after earning his degree from NC State’s College of Design in 1967.
Sears says it was a working farm that grew tobacco, but only enough to keep him and his siblings busy during the summer. The family’s main business was tobacco warehousing.
Sears’ parents intended to live on the land their entire lives. But as Cary expanded, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the land as a farm. The widening of Davis Drive around 2003 took out the farm house that Sears’ parents had lived in, leaving Sears’ son as the only family member remaining on the property.
But Sears’ parents are moving back to the property, as one of the first residents in a new continuing care retirement community built by Sears. His father, John, is 91 years old and his mother, Maggie Belle, is 90 years old.
“My parents told their children that they intended to live on this farm all their life,” Sears says. “The only was to keep them on the farm was to create an environment to allow them to live there.”
And so SearStone was created. The community, which is owned by the nonprofit Samaritan Housing Foundation, welcomed its first residents on Nov. 1 and 90 percent of the residences have already been sold.
“This is a whole new attitude toward retirement communities,” Sears says. “We are now the standard by which retirement communities of the future will be measured. We’ve definitely raised the bar.”
Before launching SearStone, Sears spent four years studying existing retirement communities along the East Coast. He learned what to avoid and saw features that he wanted to include when he built SearStone. One of his primary goals was to create a community that would give residents a chance to remain active while staying engaged with the larger community around them.
To that end, SearStone is built around a four-and-a-half acre, man-made lake that includes waterfalls, a large fountain and peninsulas and islands for pedestrians. Across the lake from the residences sits a red barn that has been on the land for over 100 years. It will eventually be restored and turned into a maintenance facility.
Sears also has plans to build a botanical conservatory in the middle of the project. He says the College of Design has agreed to manage the facility, which it will use to exhibit plants and landscapes.
Sears and his wife will be moving to SearStone by the end of the year, and he says there will be much more to come as the second and third phases of the project come on line in the coming years.
But he has already completed the most important part of the project.
“SearStone was literally born,” he says, “to put my parents back on the farm.”
Bill Allen likes to joke that he got his fill of the “ologies” at NC State. As a CHASS student in the mid-1970s studying sociology, anthropology and psychology, Allen says it was NC State professors who inspired him to go out and travel the world trying to solve ecological problems as an anthropologist.
But Allen began to trade in his “ologies” for his love of theater and music after his international travel throughout the 1990s had exposed him to European circus performers. And in the 2000s, he gave up anthropology altogether, a move that, to this day, raises some eyebrows.
“I still have people calling me,” he says, “and saying ‘Bill, I heard you ran off with the circus. Did you meet some tight-rope walker?’”
It turns out that Allen, a Shelby, N.C., native and childhood friend of David Thompson, did more than run off with the circus. He started one.
Allen is the executive director and producer for Cirque de la Symphonie, a performance company he co-founded in 2005 that blends the European circus tradition with symphony performances.
“You’ll see a mime who is a juggler and a contortionist who works to a melodic piece,” Allen says of the performances in the Cirque de la Symphonie, which makes its way to Raleigh Dec. 20-21. (The Alumni Association is hosting an event with Allen before the Dec. 20 performance.) “There’s a lot of aerial acrobatics. You’ll see people fly out over your heads. You don’t see that in any other cirque show.”
Allen says the idea came to him in the 1990s, when he made 38 trips through Russia. In his down time, he would take in the famed circus in Moscow. He would go early before the show and watch the performers practice.
With those connections, he started to serve as an informal pipeline for those performers to find their way onto American stages. He says it seemed only natural to marry performances to metropolitan orchestras, and he’s never had to look back.
“It’s the kind of thing people don’t get tired of,” he says. “It’s repeat business every year. It turned out to be more than a hobby. It’s serious business.”