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Somerset grad takes part in inauguration parade

The band prepares for their parade.

If you ask Denise L'Allier-Pray to describe her past year, she won't hesitate.


And she means it literally and figuratively.

L'Allier-Pray, 48, lived in Somerset all her life. That is, until her job as Health and Safety Manager for Carestream Health in Oakdale, Minn. relocated her to Windsor, Colo. last April.

On May 22, the town (population 18,600) was hit by a F-3 tornado.

"It destroyed 150 homes in the town of Windsor," L'Allier-Pray said. "FEMA declared it a National Disaster Zone."

Eight months later, she was with the high school's drumline in the historic 2009 Presidential Inauguration parade.

Whirlwind indeed.

* * *

L'Allier said she became fascinated with the drums when she was an 8-year-old student at St. Anne's School in Somerset.

Her grandfather, Charlemagne L'Allier, played the drums at St. Anne's in the 1920s, and she credits him as a major influence in her life.

"Drum-wise, Neil Peart of Rush," L'Allier added.

She played with the Somerset High Band in the late 1970s, but competed with the St. Croix Rivermen Drum & Bugle Corp.

"My proudest moment was making the top 25 at the Drum Corp International competition in 1980."

After graduation, she served in the Navy for 12 years as a "sub-hunter."

At 29, she learned the drumset and played in several bands. She joined Hazardous Noise in Iceland, Clever Alice in Norfolk, Va., Errata in Windsor, Colo., and local Somerset bands like Full Tilt, St. Croix Harley Davidson Garage Band in Somerset and Boston Haas.

With her transfer last year, she volunteered to teach the drumline for the Windsor Wizards, the Windsor Colorado Marching Band.

It was just the beginning of the band's journey from the tornado to the White House.

The 76-member group won the 2008 Colorado Bandmasters Class 3A State Championship in October 2008. They were one of 56 bands selected from the 1,400 applicants to perform in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20.

"Our parents group is amazing," L'Allier-Pray said. "They raised $135,000 - in this economy - in six weeks."

L'Allier accompanied the students on their trip and participated with them in rehearsals, sightseeing and even a meeting with Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and his wife, Jeannie.

"They had their pictures taken with each student; the governor's wife cried through the whole thing," L'Allier-Pray said, describing her reaction to the band's comeback story.

Although L'Allier helped the band with their marching maneuvers and two rehearsals in D.C., she did not actually march in the parade with them.

She said only four, full-time instructors were allowed to march in the parade.

"I had the best seat: Sixth and Pennsylvania Avenue. But I kept running ahead each block to cheer the band on," L'Allier-Pray said.

"Obama was two hours late for the parade, but the military had warming houses for the students, so they didn't suffer for it."

L'Allier-Pray said the announcers for the parade would "compete" with each other in relating the band's story of the tornado and whirlwind recovery.

"As the band went by President Obama and Michelle, she thanked them and blew them a kiss. It was really special."

L'Allier-Pray said that she didn't get to see the actual inauguration since there were so many people. The parade, in contrast, was not as crowded since the people were spread out.

"There were more security on the street than watchers," L'Allier-Pray commented.

The students all received box lunches, and the hologram-decorated containers made nice souvenirs.

L'Allier-Pray still considers Somerset her home, and not just because she still owns a house there. Her mother, Evie, and father, Gene, still live in Somerset, as does her husband, Damian, son Ryan and daughter Ashley.

L'Allier-Pray said the whole experience has been incredible.

"I could not make this up and should write a book about 2008," L'Allier-Pray said. "What a ride."