by Jim Bulls
Details on this year’s Reedley Fiesta at the end of this article.
I can’t keep writing how great those Fiesta’s of a half century ago were when every year there are fewer around to remember them. Thinking of friends gone by, a conversation came to mind between myself and the late Dennis Olson about the pride we both had when we watched our Reedley High “Pirate” Band march down Colorado Boulevard during the Pasadena Rose Parade in 2000. So, I thought to myself, “Self, what a better tribute to the Fiesta than to drop by and see Mr. Burl Walter Jr. and chronicle the story that led him to Reedley.”
Kansas born, Burl grew up in Shenandoah, Iowa, where his father owned a grocery store. His mother taught him how to play the piano, while dad preferred that he stock shelves, sweep floors, and bag groceries. In high school he met his favorite teacher, Vern Hollenbech, the director of the Shenandoah High School “Mustang” Band. Mr. Hollenbech was a little on the gruff side and set in his ways. Burl offered to play clarinet in concert band and bass drum for marching band. Mr. Hollenbech replied, “You are going to be my snare drummer.” As a percussionist extraordinaire, he taught Burl until Burl could compete with the teacher.
When Burl was drafted into the U.S. Army, Uncle Sam did the most extraordinary thing: instead of making him a medic or a cook, he was sent to the 22nd Armory Band out of San Francisco. Burl vowed to return to the Golden State some day to teach.
That day finally came in 1965, when he left his 55 piece band in Iowa, along with the make-shift music room located beneath the bleachers and the gymnasium with the acoustics of a tin can. Armed with a list of open music director jobs in California, he headed west.
Fortunately, he didn’t find the right fit in the schools up north. It was a bright, sunny day when he turned left on Manning Avenue for the 12-mile drive to Reedley. This gave him time to recall his desire to teach somewhere he could see the mountains. The first person he met in Reedley was Paul Goodwin. Mr. Goodwin impressed him in that all he could talk about was the winning basketball team. Soon Vern Horton joined them and they took a tour, stopping first at the band room. The room absolutely amazed Burl, but then he got a look at the vintage 1922 auditorium with its great acoustics. The interview and tour lasted less than an hour, and he was offered a contract.
The one thing Goodwin and Horton failed to tell him, was the size of the shoes he would have to fill since all music directors were judged by the standards of Norman Zech!
Human nature is expressed by a competitive spirit: NASCAR, the NFL, NHL, and band reviews where rivalries are made. Burl never liked that kind of competition. He was a true teacher, preferring to bring the student up to the best of his or her ability as a musician and a human being. He admired the accomplishments of not only his Pirates, but also those in other bands–one of the big lessons he taught was to never, never show disrespect to your competition.
Burl was bored by band competitions, and his students were bored with the same old military-style marches. The rebel Burl, pulled out “Sweet Georgia Brown” and the band began to have fun. The spectators at the band competitions began to have fun too. Sure the Pirate Band was disqualified every time they stopped mid-parade for those now-famous kick-steps, but the spectators loved it and the band was really having fun. After the band’s appearance in the 2000 Rose Parade, the marching competition rules started to change and other bands started to put a little dance in their routines.
I started playing drums in the fifth grade under the direction of Chan Henderson. Chan could toss a baton higher than the tower at Grant School and still catch it. Burl and Chan weren’t in Reedley at the same time, but they ran into each other at a band director’s conference and Burl brought Chan up to date on the Reedley music life. I was also fortunate to have the late Terry Zech in the drum section when I was in band, and we practiced together. This greatly improved my percussion abilities. The last time I put my skills to use was when Burl invited band alumnus to play with the BIG band during a homecoming football game. After the game, we adjourned to the Walter’s residence for a tasty adult beverage and catching up.
Dennis Olsen was on the Reedley High School winning football team of 1957 and his theory as to the lack of success with more recent teams is that the band is having so much fun, the burly, potential linemen would rather play the Sousaphone! This comment brought to mind another friend, Lyn Erickson, who would be hard pressed to break 100 pounds–she played Sousaphone.
As I wrapped up my interview, I was looking over Burl’s resume and I noticed that he was editor of the California Band Director’s Association newsletter for a number of years. So now he not only can scrutinize my percussion skills, but also my writing ability.
During the years Burl directed the Pirates, the Band received 29 Superior Ratings at the California Music Educators Association large group festivals. A Reedley High percussion ensemble won the Area (seven states) Percussive Arts Society Festival in 1975 and he had at least one percussion student in the California Band Directors Association All-State Band for 25 years.
Burl’s professional achievements include the California Band Directors Association’s Lifetime Service Award, 2001; Fresno/Madera Music Educators Association’s Outstanding Band Director, 1997; Central Section California Music Educators Association’s Outstanding Music Educator, 1996; California Music Educators Association’s Outstanding Music Educator, 1996; the California Band Directors Association’s Distinguished Service Award, 1996; and many others.
I draw this to a close by saying, like the late Norman Zech, Burl Walter Jr. has put his mark on Reedley and has left even bigger shoes to fill.
Have a great Fiesta and ‘Strike Up the Band!’