The Golden Age of Tech Music

by | Apr 1, 2011 | Community, Features

Story by Dianne Edwards
When Marvin Williamson became the first student to enroll in Russellville’s Second District Agricultural School in the fall of 1910, little did anyone know he would later become the first band director for the school now recognized as Arkansas Tech University. Having been drafted to direct the school’s first organized band in 1913, Marvin grew up on land next to the school that was created as a result of Arkansas General Assembly’s passage of Act 100 of 1909. The campus was actually a specialized high school when Williamson enrolled. He left after just one year of study yet his natural leadership skill and artistic talent saw him through years of service — despite possessing no academic credentials.

During that time, the instruments were furnished by the school, giving talented students a chance to broaden their musical education. Both the band and orchestra had members who played in both. Football began at the school in 1911 and played on the intercollegiate level until World War II (minus the 1918 season.) It is believed that the band played along the sidelines as a “pep” band during those early years.
Photos appearing in the college yearbook, Agricola, between the years of 1912 through 1922 featured only male members. In 1923, the first female, saxophone player Edna Hood appeared. She was joined later by saxophonist Sylvia Hurley.
Williamson continued as director of both the orchestra and band during the time that the students were primarily agricultural – or Aggie – students. During those years a new athletic nickname – the Wonder Boys – arose.

College classes were added to the school in 1921. Until that time, the school was an agricultural high school. In 1925, Act 45 of the Arkansas General Assembly officially changed the school’s name to Arkansas Polytechnic College. It was then a junior college and possessed the ability to grant degrees. The last high school class was in 1929.
Both the band and orchestra began wearing uniforms in 1926 and more women joined the orchestra, playing stringed instruments.

In 1929, the school’s music department began gaining publicity as Williamson began airing programs over the radio. He drew distinction to the band on a national level when he directed the band on the “Arkansas on Wheels” excursion through the Atlantic Seaboard and eastern states and on the West Point special (in 1924) through the East, Middle West and Canada.
Also, during 1929, the orchestra broadcast a one-hour program for Little Rock’s Columbia-chain station, KLRA. Members of the school’s Glee Clubs and quartets also performed.
As the athletic programs changed during the late 20s and early 30s, so did Director Williamson’s band uniform. He began wearing a white plumed hat and carrying a baton. The band was now a well-traveled organization. They attended out-of-town football games, marched in Little Rock parades, played at county fairs and state track meets – and in the process, Williamson was put in charge of the dance orchestra, the women’s drum corps, the band and the orchestra.

In 1932-33, the band added a longer bugle element to their Drum Corps and the dance orchestra began being known as “George and His Golden Greens.” George was Williamson’s nickname, resulting from a name-calling band prank during his early years. The “Golden Greens” reflected the school colors.
Though the concert orchestra disappeared briefly during the mid-30s as the nation struggled to recover from the impact of the Great Depression, the band remained strong.
In 1937 19-year-old Dardanelle sophomore Mary Croom became the first female twirling drum major in the history of the college. She compared the intricate formations and steps necessary for a good musical production to the difficulty of solving a calculus problem.
In 1941-42, Director Williamson took on an assistant director, C.A. Hartley, who assumed responsibility as director of the Dance Orchestra (no longer known as “George and the Golden Greens.”) After a large number of men left both the school and the band as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the country’s entry into the war against Japan, the group briefly disbanded.

The Tech band became obviously smaller as male students left to join the military. Over half of the band’s membership was female in 1942-43. At the end of WWII, male enrollment in America’s colleges due to the GI Bill resulted in growth and reflected a modest increase in Tech’s band membership. Following years resulted in even larger enrollment numbers.
Williamson organized the Russellville High School band in 1942; beginning bands at Tech and Russellville in 1948, and the Atkins High School band in 1949.
When intercollegiate sports were reintroduced following the end of WWII, the Tech Band showed support for the now four-year (1948) institution’s award-winning football and basketball teams. Five new majorettes joined the band in 1948-49.
Dramatic change was on the horizon for Arkansas Tech by the fall of 1950 as Williamson, who had been director of the group since 1912, handed over his baton to Gene Witherspoon.
Witherspoon, a graduate of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, would become another institution on the Tech campus. Williamson gave up the band’s directorship but remained a member of Tech’s music faculty until his retirement in 1956.
The Witherspoon era had begun. Every aspect of Tech’s instrumental music groups grew in size and quality of performance under Witherspoon’s leadership.
A High School Band Clinic was held on the campus in March 1950. A total of 325 band members attended.
The Dance Orchestra played more engagements both on and off campus and the Concert Band displayed an exceptional aptitude for outstanding music literature.
New uniforms provided a noticeable improvement beginning with the 1952 fall season. As Tech’s Director of Bands, Witherspoon had early responsibility for the ROTC band. The responsibility eventually fell upon the student cadets with Witherspoon serving as advisor.

By 1953, Tech’s Dance Orchestra had become so popular that Witherspoon created two groups to satisfy their demand for on-and-off campus performances.
During the spring of 1955, Witherspoon was often seen directing a Pep Band at basketball games. And soon Gene “Chief” Witherspoon introduced a series of Sunday concerts into the Arkansas Tech Concert Band’s schedule.

In the fall of 1956, the Wonder Boys and Arkansas State Indians played in War Memorial Stadium. The Aluminum Bowl, which was broadcast live on CBS, included a combined halftime show. Both bands took the field following a rainstorm, performing a tribute to the NAIA in the midst of a muddy field.
Popularity continued as Tech’s orchestra appeared on KTHV Channel 11 in Little Rock in November 1956.
Kappa Kappa Psi and Tau Beta Sigma National Honorary Band Fraternity and Sorority became full-fledge chapters in the spring of 1958.
By 1961, the Dance Band (organized in 1948 and renamed the Esquires in the 50s) was more popular than ever for social occasions across the state. The concert band, now consisting of 85 members, completed a tour of Northwest Arkansas by appearing at the Bi-State Music Festival in Fort Smith.
A new instrumental group, the Arkansas Tech Chamber Orchestra, began performing in February 1961.
The Arkansas Tech Brass Choir appeared on campus in 1962, operating under the director of Don Owen, who was also the newest director of the Esquires dance band. That same period (1961-62) the Tech Concert Band was invited to participate in the Music Educators National Conference in St. Louis, one of the highest honors.

During the early 1960s, the Tech Marching Band presented ‘gridiron stereo.’ Robert Bright, who became the new brass instructor and director of the Esquires and the Tech Brass Choir, joined the staff.
Director Witherspoon conducted the first of the famed Arkansas Tech Band Camps, designed to benefit secondary school students, during the summer of 1964.
Because of the cost and timing, the Tech band chose to decline an invitation to perform at the New York World’s Fair in September 1965.
In March 1966, Tech performed at the Music Educators (MENC) National Conference National Convention in Kansas City, Kansas. Eighty members arrived in new uniforms. The following year, 90 musicians received a special invitation to represent the South at the silver anniversary of the College Band Directors National Association Convention in Ann Arbor, Mich., a turning point that placed Tech on the national map. Tech’s Brass Choir performed at the MENC Convention that same year.
By 1967-68, the Tech Band had earned the reputationas“Arkansas’BandofDistinction,” with an enrollment of 105 students under Witherspoon’s direction. Of those, 75 were all-state band students in high school.

The entire Fine Arts department came together under one roof as the new Witherspoon Hall – named for the longtime head of the music department — was opened in 1971. Former Director Williamson had remarked previously that in the 30 years he had been at Tech, he had taught band in every building except the dairy barn and the physical education building.
The 1973-74 Tech Symphonic Band appeared at the College Band Director National Association Convention in Houston, Texas. Tech professor Joan Wainwright became the conductor of the Russellville Community Orchestra that had been formed during the late 60s. The orchestra included both Tech students and area residents.
Tech earned university status on July 9, 1976, under the authority of the Arkansas Board of Higher Education. In 1977, “Chief” Witherspoon turned over the duties of the marching band to Dr. Robert L. Casey but remained the head of the Tech Music Department. Dr. Casey, who had been a student under both Williamson and Witherspoon, had been hired in 1971.
Tech lost its beloved music director on Jan. 14, 1979, when Witherspoon died of a massive heart attack. His memorial service, held before a standing-room-only crowd, was conducted in the auditorium of Witherspoon Hall.

Experienced secondary school band director Hal D. Cooper was hired in 1979 as the new Arkansas Tech band director. He replaced Dr. Casey who remained at Tech as department head.
By 1980-81, the marching squad had blossomed to 130 members. Within the next several years, the band grew to include the Golden Girls dance squad, majorettes, the flag line and a six-member rifle team. In 1983, the Tech Symphonic Band performed at the national convention of the American Band Directors Association in Hot Springs.
The newly-formed Wind Ensemble performed for the Arkansas Music Educators Association in February 1984. Another round of new uniforms, this time with green coats and white trousers, made their appearance that fall.
By the mid-80s, the Tech Band of Distinction made appearances during home games, parades and marched exhibition shows at high school marching contests in Russellville and Little Rock. In 1987, the band performed at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the State Capitol.
Two performance bands, the Symphonic Band directed by Hal Cooper and the Concert Band conducted by Dr. Robert Casey,were formed in the spring of 1990. The Symphonic Band performed for the All-State Convention in Pine Bluff in February 1991.
The 1990-era “Band of Distinction” and the Symphonic Bands saw multiple opportunities to play the“fight song”as the Wonder Boys and Golden Suns basketball teams had winning seasons, AIC or Gulf South Championship seasons repeatedly. In 1994, the Wonder Boys football team won the AIC crown and earned a spot in the NAIA playoffs, affording Cooper’s band numerous opportunities to perform before adoring crowds.

Hal Cooper’s love for jazz and commitment to his music students was reflected in a 1998 article written for the Agricola. In March 1999, the Symphonic Band recorded a compact disk (CD) entitled Songs and Dances.
During the spring of 2000, the band performed at the dedication ceremonies of the new Ross Pendergraft Library and Technology Center. The Symphonic Band played for the American Bandmasters Association National Convention in Wichita, Kan., in March 2002.
Hal Cooper was honored for his 25th anniversary as ATU Director of Bands during a surprise party at the Russellville Country Club in spring 2004.
While any organization touches countless lives within its membership, their local community and indeed, across the world, it is impossible to accurately outline its complete history within the confines of a few written pages. Unfortunately someone will fail to receive the recognition they deserve. Without the well-rounded choral and glee programs, the music program would have had a vast void.
Volumes could be filled with the accolades of Tech’s choir directors and music department chairs, whose dedication to the music program live on through those they have instructed. Those leaving their indelible mark upon today’s musicians include choir directors: Mark Bennett, John Guthmiller, Clarence Hefner, Walt Michels, Gary Morris, William Oplinger, Paul Schulz, Rolland Shaw, John Wainwright and Ray Wheeler. Music department chairs, in addition to Williamson, Witherspoon and Casey, include Andy Anders and current chair Dr. Cynthia Hukill.
The music program at Arkansas Tech, since its inception in 1913, maintained a reputation for high standards in musical performance. They remained dedicated to preparing superior quality music teachers through their distinctive and exemplary programs.

Arkansas Tech offers to instrumental students a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music and a Bachelor of Music Education degree with an instrumental option.
Their organizations have been featured on state, regional, and national convention programs. And, as begun years ago, the department sponsors seminars and workshops featuring nationally-recognized authorities in the musicprofession.
Join Arkansas Tech University as they celebrate their Centennial Finale Weekend, April 29-May 1.


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