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Never too old to groove with THE BAND

South Boston News
Robert Wall, former HCHS band director, leads his former students in song. / October 21, 2013
It’s been more than three decades since they’ve played together, but the boys and the girls of the Blue Comet Band gathered Saturday night to crank out some jams — and no, the Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey” was not on the playlist.

But “The Horse” was.

And the kids can still rock.

“Under Coleman Starnes I remember we had some pretty good football teams,” recalled the director of the evening concert, Robert Wall, who returned to South Boston this weekend as the guest of honor for a reunion of his old band students. “So we had to play this song a lot — after every touchdown.”

Wall, now living in Blacksburg, grabbed his wand, leaned forward and kicked off a rousing version of “The Horse,” its sharp trumpet bursts and staccato rhythms handled capably by a ragtag assemblage of middle-aged musicians — the Halifax County Senior High School pep band as brought to you by Geritol.

The event drew some 90 alumni from the Classes of 1968 through 1978 for a night of partying and reminiscing at Berry Hill Resorts. As those other band mates, Lennon and McCarthy, prophesied long ago in lyrics from their “Sgt. Pepper” album, a splendid time was had by all.

One of the stars of the impromptu pep band was also the unofficial event organizer: David Powell, a financial advisor now living in Raleigh, N.C. For this one night, at least, he got to relive his days as a bona fide band standout — playing French horn.

After graduating with the HCSHS Class of 1974, Powell went on to attend the famed Julliard School of Music where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Alas, his professional path led to finance, not the performing arts. Yet Director Wall speaks in awe of Powell’s playing prowess: “I don’t think anybody in the region ever earned two degrees with Julliard like David did.”

Powell and an old buddy from the band, Clifford Johnson of Reston, hung an old banner at Berry Hill to signify one of the pinnacle events in band history: the 1973 trip to New Orleans to compete in a Mardi Gras competition. The handmade banner had been unfurled from the bus after the long drive from South Boston to New Orleans: The Comet band was now in the Big Easy. Today the banner is in Johnson’s possession. How did he get ahold of the cherished artifact? “Put it this way, I went home with it,” he said with a sly grin.

A tuba player at Halifax, Johnson went on to Virginia Tech to study computer science. He had wanted to major in music in college, but his parents demanded that he stick to an in-state school. Outside of the Shenandoah Conservatory, Virginia’s universities offered little in the way of music education. So software engineering it was.

“I wanted to go to Florida State,” he mused. “If you qualified for marching band you qualified for a musical scholarship. That would have worked out.”

The fruits of the HCSHS band program nonetheless live on in the persons of several alumni. One is Tim Knowlson, a longtime music teacher at Sinai Elementary and much sought-after local performer. Knowlson is quick to assign credit for his musicianship where credit is due: “Robert Wall meant the world to me. He was like a father to me. He’s the reason I went into teaching.” To hear Knowlson tell the tale, Wall was also instrumental in helping the talented young French horn player land a scholarship at the Shenandoah Conservatory, then part of Shenandoah College (now Shenandoah University). Knowlson grew up around music, but playing in the band cemented the affiliation.

Knowlson described Wall as a demanding taskmaster, but not one who took himself too seriously. As evidence, there’s the day that Knowlson locked his teacher in the instrument closet. “It was an after-school practice,” he recalled, when Wall was putting up the tubas — the hulking instruments didn’t go home with students. Seizing the opportunity, Knowlson and perhaps some others swung the door shut on the band director, locking him in the closet. “He stayed in there and I couldn’t remember what the combination was. I think we had to saw the lock off.

“He was a little bit mad” when he got out, and “he threatened to write me up for a yellow slip,” laughed Knowlson. “But he let me out of it.”

Frederick Stephens, of the Class of 1974, played snare drum and was sufficiently accomplished to be chosen as the sole drummer for the concert band. His post-graduate path led to the U.S. Army, and a life in El Paso, Texas — he likely earned the distinction of traveling from furthest away to join the reunion festivities. Just for the night, Stephens grabbed some drumsticks to keep the beat for the alumni pep band. “First time in a long time,” he said.

Stephens and an old classmate, Wilfred Stanfield of South Boston, shared fond memories of the New Orleans band trip. “We got to see more than what you’d see in South Boston,” said Stephens. A highlight: spotting the parade competition grand marshal, comedian Bob Hope, in the hotel lobby where the band was lodged. “We waved ‘Hey, Mr. Hope!’ and he waved back,” said Stephens. Other celebrity sightings: Jill St. John, Sammy Davis Jr. and New Orleans jazz musicians (Dr. Hook may have been among them, although Stephens’ and Stanfield’s memories are vague on that score).

Stephens said band opened up opportunities for travel, but what he most appreciates about the experience, looking back, is the sense of pride and discipline that permeated the ranks. “We were number one in Virginia,” he said approvingly. “When we got to New Orleans, we took care of business. Every time we went to a parade, people knew who we were. Mr. Wall wouldn’t cuss you out. But he’d let you know if you were going wrong. And we enjoyed that discipline.”

Stanfield, a tenor saxophonist, did double duty as a standout on the Comet football team, which meant he couldn’t perform with the band during halftime, although he did take part in parades, the Mardi Gras competition included. (“I tried it one time,” said Stanfield of stepping away from the halftime locker room to play with the band. “That didn’t work.”) After leaving HCSHS, Stanfield attended Winston-Salem State on a football scholarship. Owing to his record with the Comet band, however, he received a music scholarship, too. Summoning him for an office visit, the dean and the football coach realized the error.

“One or the other of them started talking and said, ‘You can’t have two scholarships.’ But they wanted me in the band, too,” said Stephens, who opted for football.

Tammy Bates and Tracy Bates Coleman, sisters and members of the Class of ’76, have fond memories of another signature moment for the Comet band: the April 1976 visit to Disney World in Orlando, Fla. for the theme park’s Bicentennial celebration. Going to Disney World meant that members of the band had to miss the prom, but the Bates girls said they didn’t mind. Daughters of the late Lazarus and Annie Ruth Bates, Tammy and Tracy say their parents were too strict to allow much in the way of prom hijinks anyway: “Our parents were why we didn’t have dates,” said Tracy.

The band provided an opportunity for fun, travel and bonding. (Both women were “clarinet girls,” a close-knit unit within the band at large.) Especially fun: summer band camp, a getaway that allowed the Halifax teens a taste of freedom at a 4-H camp on Smith Mountain Lake. “What happens at the lake stays at the lake,” Tracy joked. “A whole lot of stuff happened in the band,” chimed in Tammy. And through the daze of their high school days, band was the one thing they always could look forward to.

Tracy Bates Coleman acknowledged that she was going to get her degree and move on from Halifax, no matter what; her father, a noted local educator and principal, would make sure of that. But “if it hadn’t been for being in the band, I don’t know how I would have made it out of high school. That’s what I enjoyed — that’s what I looked forward to.” She reckons the same is true for kids today: “That band may be the thing that keeps that child in school. You just don’t know.”

Scott Cassada, Class of 1975, is another HCSHS band alumnus who has gone on to a career in music: a professional concert bassoonist, he performs with the Maryland and Roanoke Symphonies and with the Washington Consort, a D.C.-based choir and small orchestra (and he works for Shenandoah University). “Robert Wall was the most devoted teacher I’ve ever seen — anywhere,” said Cassada, who traveled to town Saturday night from his home in Winchester. “I’ve never seen a teacher give so much to so many students.”

The heyday of the Comet band under Wall’s leadership roughly coincided with school integration. In the merger of communities that ensued, band became one of high school’s most democratic institutions: an activity open to all students who were willing to put in the hours, whether they were supremely talented or simply competent enough to keep in tune — and in time). Cassada belonged in the former group, but he looks back at the Blue Comet band and sees a band of equals. And friends.

“I remember how much it brought people together,” he mused. “There were no lonely, isolated people in the band and the choir. We were all working together. For the same good.

“There were no problems. And there never should have been any problem.”

And the band played on.

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