LE MARS, Iowa -- Lisa Niebuhr said the truck carrying Gehlen Catholic students home from the Drake University Honor Band Festival on Dec. 2 began "bouncing at Onawa and didn't stop until we reached Le Mars."
The reason? Students inside the truck had learned the Iowa State Cyclones would be playing in the Alamo Bowl.
The same Alamo Bowl in which the Gehlen Catholic Marching Band would play.
Musicians at Gehlen this month will play in their sixth football bowl game in school history. In the previous five trips, they've entertained crowds watching teams representing universities from all over the United States. Unfortunately, they've never played in a bowl game featuring a team from Iowa.
That changes this month as these Jays don their brand new marching band uniforms (the uniforms arrived Wednesday) and take the field to wow a crowd set to watch the Cyclones battle the Washington State Cougars.
Gehlen Director of Bands Paul Neibuhr and his wife, Lisa Niebuhr, Gehlen's development director, helped set up the Alamo Bowl trip more than a year ago, a trip the school board blessed last December. The Niebuhrs visited San Antonio for three days last July to make all the necessary arrangements, setting up an itinerary that includes visits to the Alamo, a Riverwalk cruise, SeaWorld, Six Flags, the Natural Bridge Caverns, Mass at San Fernando Cathedral and more.
"Every bowl trip must include an educational component and this one involves history and science, along with religion," Lisa Niebuhr said.
While the Natural Bridge Caverns adequately covers the science portion of this trip, the Alamo coupled with the Cathedral will showcase the region's rich history and ties to Catholicism. The Cathedral, after all, is where Davy Crockett, William B. Travis, Jim Bowie and other Alamo defenders were buried. Early residents of San Antonio, it's been said, received word that enemies from Mexico and Spain were going to desecrate the bodies of those killed at the Alamo.
"When they heard this, residents of San Antonio went to the Alamo, retrieved the bodies and returned them to the Cathedral for burial," Lisa Niebuhr said, noting how there remains a plaque at the site listing those names.
Of course, there's also a performance aspect to this seven-day excursion south. The Gehlen marching band participates in a field show competition at a high school in San Antonio on Dec. 27. Musicians have joined Paul Niebuhr in working out at the Le Mars YMCA in preparation for the competition, clearing off any rust that may have formed since the fall season concluded weeks ago.
Students will then have the opportunity to join nearly 1,300 other students in filling the field at the Alamo Dome during halftime of the game on Dec. 28. Marchers from Norfolk High School in Norfolk, Nebraska, will also participate.
"The kids will perform two pieces segued together called 'Latin Magic,'" Paul Niebuhr said.
The marching bands from Iowa State and Washington State will also perform at halftime, as will dancers. All told, the Niebuhrs estimated that some 2,500 musicians and dancers will have a role in the halftime show.
To perform before a huge throng of Iowa State fans and alongside the marching band from ISU means even more to the Niebuhrs as their son, Evan Niebuhr, would have been a senior this year at Iowa State. Evan was killed while driving home from Iowa State on Oct. 14, 2016. He had called his parents from around Cleghorn, Iowa, as he made his way to Le Mars. He crashed 30 minutes later.
In the wake of Evan's death, officials at Iowa State University established a crisis fund, one utilized by families who have sick or deceased students at ISU. The Niebuhrs helped contribute to get the fund established. Those dollars are used to aid families with gas or lodging costs or other related expenses in that time of incredible sorrow.
"Even if they can provide a gas card for a family in that situation, it means the world," Lisa said.
The Niebuhrs noted that this fall represents the first time in 15 seasons that the Cyclone Marching Band doesn't have a Gehlen alum in its ranks. How ironic, then, that the entire Gehlen Marching Band will be on the field with the ISU musicians at the Alamo Bowl.
The Niebuhrs said this bowl trip and five preceding trips couldn't have happened were it not for the dedicated Gehlen students who brave the August heat and the late-season winds each fall to represent their school in parades, halftime shows and marching competitions. The trips also wouldn't have come about without the tireless support of parents, community and staff members, all who pitch in to raise thousands of dollars every year for the fine arts programs, including this band, at Gehlen Catholic.
"Paul and I just wave our hands," Lisa Niebuhr said. "The attention should be on two groups of people: The Gehlen band students who for 21 years have worked so long and given their hearts to represent out school, our community and Northwest Iowa; and our benefactors, our parents and others who've supported us with their prayers, time, talent and treasures."
All that work, she said, enables a trip like this to occur at a nominal cost for students. Jays marchers, after all, will dole out around $200 for this once-in-a-lifetime school experience. "They pay for their meals on the bus rides down and back, that's it," Paul Niebuhr said.
Those trips, Lisa said with a laugh, can last anywhere from 20 to 28 hours -- and longer -- depending on the late-December whims of one Mother Nature.
"The last time we went to the Alamo Bowl," Paul recalled, "was in 2007 and it took 28 hours. We had snow from Le Mars to Dallas!"