It was the promise of free food, I’m certain, that drew me to the Opening Day celebration on the university’s upper quad that September noon four years ago. Students, faculty and staff milled about, quietly communing over chicken sandwiches and ice cream in the autumn sun.

Against the west side of the chapel, however, it was anything but quiet. A trio of musicians sawed and plucked bluegrass with abandon. Economics chair Joe Kreitzer flicked away at the strings of his hammered dulcimer, while theology prof Father David Smith cranked on his fiddle. I couldn’t place the third man, a white-haired gnome who hunched over a Flatiron mandolin, fingers and pick a-blur, playing better mando than anyone I’d ever heard. Their music rolled through chord patterns, some predictable, some surprising, and instinctively I moved to the rhythm.

Catching my eye, Joe cocked his head toward a three-quarter size Taylor guitar lying in its case at his side. I hadn’t played guitar for years, but I picked up the Taylor, found the key, and, after one time through, sort of had the progression. Just about the time I had half the chords right, the mandolinist – who, I later learned, was Bob Douglas, of St. Thomas’ central receiving and recycling program and a founder of “A Prairie Home Companion’s” Powdermilk Biscuit Band – lifted his foot into the air. As the phrase ended, everyone stopped playing. Everyone except me, that is. I merrily thumped along in a cloud of wrong chords for a few more measures until I realized that I had a solo gig going.

That was my inauspicious debut with the Show’d-Up Band, now a musical mainstay on the St. Paul campus at St. Thomas. We’ve done gigs in O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center, at the President’s Christmas dinner, even at the Weisman Art Museum. But mostly you’ll find us jamming on Thursdays at noon, either in the lower quad or in Murray-Herrick’s Campus Square, playing a mix of bluegrass, Irish and old-time music.

At first, we were just a group of 50-something graybeards who looked like escapees from the great folk scare of the ’60s, to borrow a phrase from James Taylor. We’ve since grown in age range, in gender, in talent, and, most notably, in size. In fact, on some days, as Bob has observed, the Show’d-Up Band looks more like the Show’d-Up Orchestra, when as many as a baker’s dozen regulars and strays make up the group.

Whatever we play, whether it’s the lazy “Harvest Home” or the half-crazed “Cincinnati Hornpipe,” it’s obvious that most of us are still learning, with Bob leading simply and slowly so the rest of us can follow along. It didn’t take me long to realize how many creative renditions of our tunes were deep in Bob’s encyclopedic repertoire. In fact, when flutist Amy Kreitzer (Joe’s sister-in-law) and fiddler Ann Mossey (a UST Catholic-studies grad student) brought their Irish reels and jigs to the mix, Bob knew those tunes too. The fact that he could, if he so chose, spontaneously launch into some wild variation on a tune the rest of us were just struggling to accompany illustrates the generous patience of this national-class musician, who taught himself to play on a $14.95 Japanese guitar before coming to Minnesota in 1966 from Texas on full academic scholarship to Macalester College.

Thanks to Bob’s reputation, professional musicians drop in to play with the Show’d Up Band. They include guitarist-fiddler-banjoist Mark Kreitzer, Joe’s brother and front man for the Middle Spunk Creek Boys, as well as Bill Cagley, a guitarist and instructor at Minneapolis’ Homestead Pickin’ Parlor. After a recent Thursday session with guests Mark and Bill, Ann could scarcely contain her enthusiasm. “I just love this group,” she bubbled. “I feel like I’m part of a family.”

So do I. It’s a concept I’m partial to, since I’m always preaching family values to my swimming and diving teams at St. Thomas. For me, the process of discovering family within the Show’d-Up Band began with fellow guitarist Dan Gjelten, director of the university’s libraries. Even though Dan and I had been classmates at Mayo High in Rochester and had bought our first guitars at neighboring music stores, we had not met. Knowing each other through the band, we’ve not only created a collection of duets, but we’ve also forged a bond that can only be described as brotherhood. It’s the same with many of the others. I’ve grown close to Joe and Bob and journalism chair Mark Neuzil, who builds and plays mountain dulcimers and banjos. As music has brought us together at each other’s homes, friendships among our families have formed, making the Show’d-Up Band’s family a happily extended one.

The Show’d Up Band can thank Joe, now associate vice president for academic affairs, for its origins. The South Dakota native, whose musical heritage derives from a large and gifted family, taught a St. Thomas interim course about 20 years ago called “String Band Music in the Twin Cities.” Joe invited Bob, then a regular in the Powdermilk Biscuit Band, as a guest speaker. The occasion happened just before a turning point for Bob, who was ready to give up the life of a traveling musician for the life of a family man. “Not long after,” Joe recalls, “Bob showed up as a custodian at St. Thomas and quickly became night custodial supervisor.”

As their musical connection with Father David Smith evolved, they managed to make music Wednesday evenings for a couple of months. But between Bob’s night duties and his and Joe’s obligations to their young families, the weekly sessions became hit or miss. It was one of the trio’s infrequent reunions that I happened across that September day in 1999. It sparked a commitment to play every Thursday noon, and we’ve been going at it ever since. Other than my wife’s birthday and our wedding anniversary, “pickin’ ” is one of the few events repeatedly scheduled into perpetuity on my electronic calendar.

From those first Thursdays, the core group has stayed together, energized by the comings and goings of various musicians. Father Smith, whose fast fiddling is the result of his boyhood races to beat his sister to each tune’s finish, still drops by when he doesn’t have Mass. Ryan Hanley, a classically trained string player, joined the Show’d-Up Band moments after he joined St. Thomas Political Science Department; a year later he accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale. “My year of fiddle-tune boot camp under the surveillance of Captain Douglas has served me extremely well,” Ryan wrote me not long ago from Connecticut, where he now plays Irish and contra dance music. Sociology adjunct Lee Smithey got an even more rapid introduction to the group when he played his tin whistles with the band on the day of his St. Thomas job interview. He stayed a year before accepting a tenure-track position at Swarthmore. Changes in schedule allowed Paul Strickland, Counseling and Career Services, to join, but forced Tom Hixson, geology, into sporadic attendance. Students have joined us from time to time, too, including Bob’s oldest son, David, a guitarist who has started a band of his own.

Even instruments come and go, one member’s new guitar or mandolin setting off a buying frenzy at local music stores. Since guitarists Tom Murphy and Lief Johnson from Tech Support joined the group, for instance, Lief has switched to playing mandolin and upgraded to a Weber. Dan added a maple Guild 12-string to his collection of four (“and counting …”) guitars, Joe bought an even bigger hammered dulcimer and a Gibson banjo, and I’ve invested $1,000 in rehab work between my Guild 12-string guitar and my custom-built Brentrup six-string. Even Bob replaced his Flatiron mandolin with an F-series version made by the legendary Lloyd LaPlant, whose June bluegrass festival in Grand Rapids, Minn., has drawn several Show’d-Up Band members and their families over the last few years.

The Show’d-Up Band’s most recent excuse to play together off campus was, appropriately enough, a family celebration – a high-school graduation party for Joe’s youngest daughter, Becca. Several members played that late May evening, the music beginning with a series of frenetic fiddle tunes and ending four hours later with the band’s sentimental signature finish, “Ashokan Farewell.” Joe, Mark, Bob and I lingered on Joe’s deck, telling joke after gray-whiskered joke and groaning in unison at the punch lines. We were tired and our fingers hurt, but nobody wanted to go home. Our hearts were in tune, and nobody wanted that particular music to end.

About the author: Dr. Tom Hodgson is an adjunct professor in the School of Education and the Department of Health and Human Performance. He is in his 25th year as head swimming and diving coach at St. Thomas.