Sgt. 1st Class Donald Francisco flips through one of five 3-inch binders full of signed pictures, articles, hand-written notes and a blue marker drawing of a teddy bear done by a little girl who lost her father in the war.
“These binders are full of people who have touched my life and that I have been honored and humbled to touch their lives,” said Francisco.Francisco has provided inspiration and encouragement to these people and many others around the world through his service as an Army musician. However, after 30 years of playing, Francisco is retiring and closing a chapter in his musical journey.
“It’s surreal,” said Francisco, fifer, The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps [FDC], 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). “I never thought it would get here and now it’s here.”
Francisco always knew that music would be an integral part of his life when he began searching for an instrument to play at the age of 12.
“I’d thought I try clarinet and sax and drum but my sister said that wasn’t me. She knew I was only trying to follow the guys,” said Francisco. “When I saw the flute, I was like I can do that, it was something different.”
He added that although some people saw the flute as a feminine instrument, he was ready to take on the challenge and received a lot of encouragement from his family along the way.
Francisco continued playing the flute through middle school and eventually landed a spot in the St. Augustine Marching 100, a prestigious high school band in New Orleans, La. After graduating in 1984, Francisco joined the Army with one simple goal in mind.
“I had a dream to play for the President one day as an Army musician,” said Francisco.
Francisco fulfilled his dream when he joined the FDC seven years into his Army career.
The FDC performs at all armed-forces arrival ceremonies for visiting dignitaries and heads of state in support of the president.
Francisco said reaching his goal to play for not one, but three presidents – Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Obama – was a dream come true. Where some may render these moments has highlights of their careers, Francisco said these aren’t the moments he will miss or treasure the most.
“The high profile gigs are nice but every job has significance and an importance,” said Francisco. “It was nice playing for Nelson Mandela, the Queen and the Pope, but it is just as nice playing at elementary schools where the kids like to ask about our wigs and our coats and our fifes and drums.”
The FDC wears uniforms and plays instruments patterned after Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army. Francisco said he was touched to represent an important part of our Nation’s birth to a younger generation.
“The Fife and Drum Corps is living history” said Francisco. “Sometimes people will call me an ‘edutainer’ because I educate and I entertain.”
Francisco strived throughout his career to bring joy and happiness to those around him with his ability to play a unique instrument. Year after year, Francisco ran the Army Ten-Miler while wearing his tri-cornered hat and playing his fife in order to provide runners with the motivation necessary to complete the run.
“I’d play songs like God Bless America and If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands and people would actually clap their hands while running,” said Francisco. “I’ll even take requests. Some people have asked me to play Happy Birthday or their service song.”
Francisco, who has close to 700 songs memorized, takes pride in being able to communicate through his music. Most importantly, Francisco said it was most helpful when dealing with an international audience.
“My music is a pedal-stool to reach out to people. I call it an icebreaker and a bridge-maker,” said Francisco. “As I’m playing, I’ll listen to a person’s language or their dialect and I’ll begin to play a song of their nationality or from their country. Those are some of my most touching moments; when I am able to reach out to a person through music without even speaking a word to them.”
Francisco said looking back he doesn’t regret the moment as a little boy when he decided to do something out of the box. His ability to always search for something different led him to the FDC and helped give him a sense of self.
“The one thing the flute has done for me is help me be secure in who I am and who I am not and that’s important for people to realize,” said Francisco.“I know what my job is and I know what it requires.”
Although he has enjoyed a successful 30-year career in the Corps of Army Music, Francisco said this will not be the complete end for him.
“Success is not final and failure is not fatal; meaning that when you do fail start over,” said Francisco. “But when you are successful, don’t think that is the end. You have to continue.”