Neil Shirley, First Full-Time DHS Band Director

(More Pictures Below)


            There was a day 70 years ago when Denison High School had a make-shift band with homemade uniforms and a part-time director that actually taught math.

            Then along came a young man fresh out of Oklahoma University in 1938 and things did a big turnaround for the better.

            Neil Shirley had just graduated from OU and had never heard of Denison. One of the OU band directors told him and some of the other music majors that he knew of a couple of schools in Texas that were looking for band directors. Neil got in his little car and drove down for an interview with school board members including Bill Steakley, W.L. Peterson and E.H. Bryan.

            He got the job, starting with about 50 band members that eventually grew to about 70 members. Neil was the first full-time paid band director for the school. After committing to have a regular band with a paid director, the school purchased nice uniforms and equipment for the Drum and Bugle Corp, none of whom had ever played an instrument. Although they were beginners, that Corp worked very hard and received a first division rating at regionals.

            During Neil’s first year at DHS, he also taught math, but after that year he was a full-time music teacher. His predecessor’s actual job was to teach math and he tried very hard with the band, but had no support. Neil said the band members he inherited were a “terrible band,” but he worked with them very hard and they made good progress.

            Once, he said, he went to a band parents’ meeting and thought they were going to run him out of town for working their children so hard. At that time Greenville had the best band in the area and it was the envy of every school. He told the band parents that he would turn the Denison kids into a better band than Greenville’s – and he achieved that promise.

            Neil was band director at Denison High when the last wing that included the auditorium was added to the high school. That was the last section added and the first demolished during the present school demolition project. He said the townspeople were really proud of that auditorium.

            Until that time the band hall was in one end of the gymnasium and the girls’ basketball team practiced at the other end – many times at the same time. Neil said they had a precious girls’ basketball coach, but the two of them fought over space. Each group disturbed the other.

            Neil said he didn’t have any say-so on adding the wing, but in the beginning there were no plans for a band hall there. He was able to convince the powers that be to place a band hall under the auditorium stage. That’s where they practiced after the auditorium was built.

            The band went out of town to football games just like it does now, but the difference was that they almost always went on the train. A Katy train would be chartered and patrons would join the band members to go to the games that were not in as far away places as today.

            The band performed at the games and Neil did his own choreography and planned the marching drills. Most of their performances were military marches that they practiced on the streets of Denison. Most of the students had their own instruments. The school could afford only a very few.

            In Neil’s high school band were two girls, Zoe and Charlsie Rutherford, who after graduating joined a group that played at USO Centers around the country with Phil Spitally. They later formed their own trio with another musician and Neil said they got very good playing all over the country in nightclubs as openers for celebrities. Zoe ended up owning a night club in Chicago, but he said he isn’t sure where Charlsie went.

            Denison is where Neil met his future wife, Mary Marie Jennings who had just graduated from high school, then went off to college for two years. When they decided to get married, he left the band director’s job because it didn’t pay enough to support a wife. He opened a music store in downtown Denison.

            Then along came World War II and he enlisted and became an Army Band director and remained stateside during his four years in the Army. Most of the time he was stationed as director of a show band that traveled around this part of the country and was stationed at Independence, KS. Actually, he was over three dance bands in the Army and furnished all three for events every weekend.

            When he was discharged from the Army he came back to Denison. The music store was closed when he went into the Army, and besides, he couldn’t get musical instruments at that time.

            So Neil went to work for his father-in-law, Walter Jennings in his furniture store located where Hart Place Hall now is located. After the death of Walter Jennings and his wife, Neil and Mary Marie operated the store for a number of years.

            At one time there were four Jennings brothers as friendly competitors in the furniture business in Denison. Walter with his son-in-law and daughter, Neil and Mary Marie Shirley at Walter Jennings Furniture, 500 West Main; Frank Jennings and sons, Noel and Paul at North Side Jennings Furniture, 517 West Main; Henry Jennings in the 400 block West Main; and Fred Jennings at Household Furniture, 411 West Main that now is owned by Marcus Hubbard.

            Mary Marie, who died about a year ago, was very involved in her dad’s store. Neil retired and they closed the business about 18 years ago.

            For a while Neil and a group of friends rehearsed and played a little “for their own amazement” he said. Other members of the group were Charles Logan, Dr. Reid Jones, Tom Miller and Bill Wheat. Neil was a drummer and in the group he played the viberharp, also known as a vibraphone.

            The Shirleys have a son, Wayne, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., and also is a good musician. When the Holiday Inn opened here he played the organ in the restaurant at night. Their daughter, Ann Shirley, is a member of the class of 1966 at Denison High and is employed at Texoma Medical Center.

Article by Donna Hunt











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