Longest-serving female member of The President's Own Marine Band set to retire

Master Gunnery Sergeant Ruth McDonald will retire this October after 30 years of service.

It had only been 12 years since the first female member joined "The President's Own," and there were still no locker rooms or specially designed uniforms for women.

But over the course of her 30-year career, McDonald's leadership and guidance played an integral role in improving the life, comfort and presence of women in "The President's Own."

McDonald, who began playing the clarinet in the third grade, auditioned for the band in 1985 after seeing an advertisement in the musician's union paper. She had just earned a master's degree at New England Conservatory. Three years prior, she completed a bachelor's degree in music at Ithaca College in New York.

Following her July 10 retirement ceremony, McDonald will earn the distinction as the longest-serving female member of the Marine Band.

"It's going to be a big loss when we see Ruth retire," Maj. Michelle Rakers, the band's assistant director, said. "She has shouldered the burden of transition when women just came into this organization."

McDonald sat down with Military Times to reflect on three decades of service, as well as the changes she's seen and what she will miss the most.

Q. How did you make the most of your position as one of the band's female pioneers?

A. I had wonderful opportunities to showcase what I could do. I sought opportunities to do solos, perform chamber music and coordinate chamber recitals. Then I became assistant section leader of the clarinet section. I just always believed in doing my job well. I also was given opportunities to lead changes on women's uniforms. I worked on improving the fit of maternity uniforms, something needed as more women join the Corps.

Q. How have things for women changed over the course of your career?

A. When I auditioned for the band, it was behind a screen and you took your shoes off so no one knew if you were a man or a woman. There have just been so many changes [in terms of] the number of women who have auditioned and successfully joined the band. We have key people in positions of principal — principal clarinet, principal flute — who are women. When I first got in the band, one of the most notable changes is if there were a small group going out — for instance, a funeral band going to Arlington — it would not be unusual for there to be just one woman on that job. Now there are five or six women going together. So just the camaraderie of women [to deal] with issues about uniforms or family I think has improved life for the women in the band.

Q. What are some of the especially memorable performances during your three decades with "The President's Own?"

A. I served under five presidents, but was involved in seven inaugurations. One of my favorite inaugurations, which was a difficult experience because it was just so cold, was President Obama's first ceremony. I have never seen anything like that on the National Mall. There were people everywhere. They were in the trees, on the monuments — that was quite a view.

Q. What about your time serving with the Marine Band has been the most meaningful?

A. Seeing the veterans sitting in the front rows at a tour concert [while] you play the national anthem. There's no way that they're going to stay in their seat. Or as we finish up the concert with the "Armed Forces Medley," there's no way that there is a dry eye from any of them because they're just so moved from their pride and their patriotism. We are honoring those families and those heroes who have either served for a length of time, or have given their lives.

Q. What will you miss the most?

A. It has been a wonderful career, to be in the band for 30 years, to play with musicians of this level. The musicians that we're getting now, there's just a great desire to perform. I think more so than when I first got in the band. Just the talent, that's perhaps the thing that I will miss the most. Playing with such wonderful musicians.