A beautiful and inspiring story we had to share….
Not the career he sought
The son of musicians, including a father who directed the Eastwood High band in El Paso, Walker was encouraged toward music, though his father advised him “to get a degree in something. It’s the wisest thing he ever said to me.”
So while he wanted to be a youth minister, he compromised by getting a degree in music education. Then he became a youth minister.
Soon, though, he had a revelation of sorts. It struck him that while he was in his church office on weekdays, kids in need of guidance were in school. He changed his tactic and took an assistant band director job at Cooper High School the 1990-91 school year under Jack Nall.
“That was great. I loved it,” he said. He then directed the Lincoln Middle School band before moving to Hurst Junior High, which was a feeder to a great program at L.D. Bell High School.
After two years, he got a call from Abilene High Principal Royce Curtis, inviting him to lead the oldest marching band in Texas.
“I said no,” Walker said.
Already, he had seen too much band director burn-out, no thanks to long hours and the competitive atmosphere. He was afraid the job would adversely affect his family life, but after talking it over with his wife, Kathy, he took the job.
“Maybe to prove the job could be done without the job overworking people and burning them out,” he said.
And, he promised himself not “to use kids to win trophies.”
‘A lot of history’
Now, the Abilene High job carries as much history as any program. John Phillip Sousa once conducted the band, when AHS was located at what became Lincoln. Another familiar face was Bynum, who would be the McMurry band director after leaving AHS until 1972. He died in 2003.
Bynum was buddies with Henry Filmore, also one of America’s greatest bandleaders.
Prof once showed Walker some of Filmore’s hand-written music manuscripts that Bynum had been asked to critique. This year, an AHS band student is living in Bynum’s home and a movie night recently was held there.
“A lot of history,” Walker said.
The marching band over the years has ranged in size from about 150 to 250, which is what it was this year. The band consistently has been regarded as musically excellent, logging superior ratings.
Walker takes that as a compliment. He wants student musicians to learn and excel.
And that means outside the band hall, too. This year’s salutatorian, Matthew Bos, is a dynamite saxophone player. Walker said eight of the school’s Top 25 students are in band.
Band attracts good students, or good students are in the band, he reckoned.
“Or both,” he added. “The discipline helps them succeed.”
But music, he said, is not about competition.
“Music should not compete with music. That’s not why it exists. I’ve been on my soap box about that for 20 years,” he said. Texas, he said, tends to go overboard with music competitions.
“Music could be and should be about much more,” he said. “Marching bands were made to entertain audiences at football games. Let them do that. If the awards come, that’s great.
“My goal is to keep people from getting up to go get a hot dog.”
Walker is only 52. What’s ahead?
Try this. He is interested in studying to become a real estate agent.
“I want to continue to help people,” he said. He also is interested in organizing travel plans for kids, as part of their education.
And maybe he’ll teach. He is a trombonist by training.
Not long ago, the next wave of leadership seemed to be in place at Abilene High. But the departure of longtime assistant Michelle Lessing to Wylie, and others on staff, led to what in sports is called a “rebuilding year.”
Lessing now is band director at Wylie High.
“Paul is a wonderful friend and one of my greatest mentors,” she said. “He and his wife, Kathy, taught me that people and moments matter most in this crazy world of band directing. His passion for teaching kids is infectious and one that we share.
“I don’t think I would have enough paper to list what I have gained.”
AHS landed Kraemer, who has a Ph.D. in fine arts from Texas Tech.
Walker said his successor learned a great deal this year at AHS, including what is important to students and parents. He expects Kraemer to take the band forward with improvements and making changes where he finds opportunities.
“I am nothing but positive he will do that,” Walker said.
One mark that Walker that leaves at AHS is the performance of “King of Kings,” excerpted from Handel’s “Messiah” to conclude the winter concert.
It has been performed every year he has been at AHS.
“We were looking for a fun piece and found that. It looked fun to play and easy to learn … it wasn’t,” he said, laughing. “Let’s try it.”
The students enjoyed it so much, they asked to do it again the next year. It became a tradition, so special that, he said with pride, people began attending the concert just to hear the music performed. Musicians spread out across the AHS auditorium, their music resonating stage to balcony.
Some are in tears at the conclusion because they know it will be remembered for a lifetime.
“So I guess we got stuck with it,” he joked.
The tradition may remain, or become part of Eagles band lore attributed to Walker.
He’s good either way.
All in for AHS
Paul Walker exits as the highest-paid teacher in the Abilene ISD. That’s due in part to longevity and how his contract is structured, he said. He really only has had two non-contract weeks a year.
Any parent involved in band will attest that directors earn their keep, from the long hours of travel to games and contests, to Saturday and evening performances and band camp when August rolls around.
And there are the challenges to solve, which led to Walker being named “The King of Punt” because of his ability to work successfully through challenging situations.
Even when a memorable trip to Dublin (Ireland, not Erath County) concluded with two students being left behind.
“They still speak to me,” he said.
Going back to his original assessment of the job at Abilene High, the busy schedule required a buy-in form Team Walker.
“I have had great family support from my kids and my wife,” he said. His son Josh (French horn) and Mary Cathryn (oboe) are AHS band grads.
So, the decision to take a big-school band director’s job was the right one?
“Absolutely .. I wouldn’t trade these 20 years for anything,” he said. “My wife said (I’ve) blessed as many kids that have blessed me. I think I have been blessed more. I have been blessed every day.
“These are great kids. They’ve kept me young and happy.”
Article originally published on Abilene Reporter News.