Sophy Mae Mitchell Jr. (BSA ’53) is famous among UF marching band members past and present. She holds a special place in the hearts of the Gator Band community as the first woman to ever march.
When Mitchell came to the University of Florida, the first thing she did was speak to Colonel Harold B. Bachman, the band’s director at the time.
“I have to march,” she said, knowing that the instrumentalists were all men at the time.
Bachman instructed her to learn the bell lyre. After carrying the banner for the band her first year, she graduated to bell lyre, becoming the first female instrumentalist in the Gator Marching Band.
Twenty years later, in 1973, Mitchell was a member of the first Gator Alumni Band, where she picked up the bell lyre once again.
After decades of returning to Florida Field for band reunions, Mitchell passed away in January 2021 at the age of 90.
“Sophy Mae Mitchell’s life-long dedication to the Gator Marching Band is an inspiring story influencing generations of band members,” said Onye Ozuzu, dean of the UF College of the Arts. “We are grateful for her passion and her lasting legacy.”
Mitchell’s passion for the band extended past her years in school. She was a welcomed member to the alumni band each year, according to Michelle Taunton, the current president of the Gator Band Alumni Association. To Taunton’s knowledge, Mitchell only missed two Gator Band reunions—one for her high school reunion and the other for her granddaughter’s birth.
“She was a fixture at alumni band,” Taunton said. “We loved having her. She always made alumni band reunions feel really special.”
Mitchell’s record of attendance at the reunions continues to inspire Taunton to this day.
“Sophy really loved meeting the younger alumni,” Taunton said, adding that she wants to stay connected to the band in the same way Mitchell used to.
At these reunions, Mitchell would play her beloved bell lyre, an instrument that has since been retired from the band. Former band director and Professor Emeritus Gary Langford remembers her frequent presence at these events.
“She would show up every year with her bell lyre, and I would make sure to have a part written just for her,” Langford said.
Generations of alumni recall Mitchell's enthusiastic, contagious personality. Professor Jay Watkins, current director of the Gator Marching Band, remembered her fondly for this.
“She always had this bright energy in the room,” Watkins said. “She said her happiest time was when she was playing with the band.”
Alumni remember Sophy Mae Mitchell in so many ways. Here are a few of their stories.
“As a band member, I always admired seeing Sophy every year on Band Alumni Day. Her smile was contagious and her love for the Gator Band unwavering! I was so honored to return as an alumni and take the field with her as a fellow alumni. She inspired me to remember I was never too old to return to Florida Field to proudly march 8 to 5 one more time to good ole’ Orange and Blue! She will forever be an icon in UF Gator Band and remembered in our hearts forever!”
-Heather Croft-Jackson, Gatorette (BHS Occupational Therapy 1997)
“I don't know if I ever actually met Sophy Mae Mitchell aside from seeing her from afar during alumni games. But that didn't matter because she was an inspiration for every single woman in Gator band - when alumni day came and we heard that glockenspiel pierce over every other instrument, I felt so proud to be able to follow in her footsteps as a woman in music. Even after graduating, I could hear her bells broadcast over the TV during alumni games, a salient reminder of her accomplishments and her commitment to the Gator band. She will be missed.”
-Stefanie Acevedo, trombone (BMUS Music 2008)
“Every Gator Band Alumni Day when I was in undergrad, Sophy Mae would take the time to talk with the sisters of the Beta Xi chapter of Tau Beta Sigma (the chapter she helped charter). She always radiated happiness and joy on these weekends, especially when taking the field for halftime. At the alumni game in October 2017, when we gathered with the current Gator Band to sing the alma mater, I just happened to end up on the end of the row of clarinets, where the staff had set up a chair for Sophy Mae to join us, and held her hand while we sing. I'm so glad to have been able to stand and sing next to her, and that the photographer captured the moment.”
-Carla Geiger-Serrick, clarinet (BMUSE Music Education 1991 & MM Music 2005)