Denison’s own U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Marva Lewis, 1983 graduate of Denison High School, and The U.S. Army Field Band, “The Ambassadors,” raised the roof of Eisenhower Auditorium at least six inches recently when they performed a free concert in Denison.

Not only did Sgt. Lewis take center stage as vocalist with the band, but she was promoted to Master Sergeant in front of her family and friends and was instrumental in honoring two Denison women for the part they played in entertaining service members during World War II. Mrs. Helen Cole, 1943 Terrell High School graduate in Denison, was present for the presentation and a niece,
Gail Randle-Williams, Judy Hilliard Dawson, a cousin of the late Laverne Marguerite Hilliard Bradshaw, another 1943 Terrell graduate, were on hand to accept the Commander’s Award for Public Service for outstanding civilian service to the United States Army in 1943 and 1944.

Mrs. Cole and Ms Bradshaw were full-time students at Prairie View College and members of the all-female big band, “The Prairie View CoEds.” Mrs. Cole was a drummer and Ms Bradshaw played the trombone. Both had just graduated from Terrell, where they developed a taste for music.

As Marva Lewis recognized the work of the two women, she said “These ladies sacrificed weekends, holidays and summer vacation to entertain troops at military bases throughout the Southern United States.” She pointed out that “as African American women, Mrs. Cole and Ms. Bradshaw displayed courage by playing with a big band when diversity was not embraced by society and they were pioneers who paved the way for female musicians today.”

She added, “They proved that standing in the midst of adversity can bring about positive changes for all. Their courage and dedication to uplifting the spirit of service members during the time of need was beneficial to the United States Army and the United States of America.”

The citation was signed by Finley R. Hamilton, Colonel, AG, Commander. The two musicians are featured, along with two other Denison Prairie View CoEds of the 1940s, Clora Bryant and Elizabeth Thomas Smith, all graduates of Terrell High School, in a book, “Swing Shift” by Sherrie Tucker. The book is about the all-girl bands of the 1940s. A band picture on the book’s cover shows a young Marguerite Bradshaw and six other girls playing trombones.  Marguerite Bradshaw died on Jan. 24 at her home in Denison. She returned to Denison a number of years ago after a teaching career in New York City.

Helen Cole, who played with the Co-Eds, then had her own groups for many years played all over the Caribbean Islands, in 14 countries and throughout the United States and Canada before retiring and coming back to Denison in 1971 to care for her mother. She then first worked at Texoma Medical Center as a telephone operator, then went to Team Bank, where she worked until she retired in 1986. Mrs. Cole is among the seven or eight surviving members of the Prairie View CoEds, that were organized in 1942. She said band members were all about 17 years old and during the summer that they were at Prairie View is when they traveled around entertaining at the military bases. When school started, they played at the school, but studies came first.

In April 2002 they were honored at the school during the Founders’ Day and Honors Recognition Convocation.  That was the first time many of the band members, including some of the Denison members, had seen each other in 50 years. They’ve been keeping in touch since then.

Mrs. Cole actually began her career as a drummer on a dare at Terrell High School when she was president of her senior class and came up with the idea of a musical to be presented by the seniors. They had a pianist and a bass player, but needed a drummer. One senior, David Price’s brother played drums so Helen told him that he could get his brother to show him how to play.  He kept saying he couldn’t and when it got down to the last minute Helen told him that she, who had never touched drums, would show him how. He kept saying “I can’t,” so their teacher told her that she knew so much about it, she could play the drums.

She had never had a lesson, but found that she had the God-given talent and that she really could play. Conrad Johnson, a saxophone player and E. X. Brooks, a bass player, both at Terrell, stayed after school and took her through rhythm and tempo.  Before she went to Prairie View she played at Tropical Gardens, then after she finished college and began traveling with her own groups, she met a lot of musicians and learned from all of them. One of her biggest thrills came when she sat in with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. She also played double bills with Van Johnson, who became a good friend.  She loved the life of a musician, and says when she listens to bands she still cannot keep her leg still – it automatically goes with the beat. But the time came that she felt she needed to stop and she sold her drums four years ago.

Terrell produced some outstanding musicians, most under the direction of Johnson and Brooks. Denison High School has done the same and Marva Lewis is an example of that. Marva is in her 18th year with the U.S. Army.  She brought the crowd to its feet when she received  her pin and formal promotion to Master Sergeant during the concert.  She brought them to their feet once more when she sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in an arrangement for the U.S. Army Field Band.

Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Laird directed the 19 member band that has been traveling around the country presenting jazz to audiences. The band has appeared in all 50 states, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Japan and the Republic of India.  The next morning morning the band “hit the road again,” this time with the newly promoted Master Sergeant Marva Lewis ready to raise the roof in another concert hall, but with warm memories of Tuesday night’s performance in her OWN hometown. - Donna Hunt


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