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Former D-B orchestra, band directors now in hall of fame

Rick Wagner • Aug 14, 2014 at 2:29 PM

KINGSPORT — Former Dobyns- Bennett High School Orchestra Director Celia Bachelder and former D-B Band Director J.S. Tilson have a lot in common.

They were contemporaries at D-B with similar career tracks.

The two, who attend the same church these days, also helped start music programs early in their careers: Bachelder initiating orchestra at Robinson Middle and then D-B, Tilson starting band in his native Washington County, Tenn., before he eventually made his way to Kingsport. Bachelder, a Kingsport native, graduated from D-B.

Another thing they have in common is membership in the East Tennessee School Band and Orchestra Association Hall of Fame.

Tilson in 2009 became the first band director with a Kingsport and D-B connection to be named to the ETSBOA Hall of Fame. In 2006, he was chosen for the Tennessee Bandmasters Association Hall of Fame.

They also attend the same church and his late brother was in the Naval Academy with her husband.

"We were both lucky we were provided money and the encouragement from the school system and (school) board," Bachelder said. "We came in contact with a lot of young people and we were fortunate to work there (D-B)."

Bachelder in February became the first orchestra director, the first female and the second person with Kingsport connections to be named to the ETSBOA Hall of Fame program that began in 2007.

"I got the book," Bachelder recalled of her 2014 award. "I thought they had made a mistake. You'll notice there's not a female in the bunch (before this year). There's not an orchestra person, either."

Her first plaque mistakenly was engraved band director, not orchestra director. But she said she's used to that because band programs are most always stronger and larger than orchestra programs.

Tilson's Hall of Fame certificate from Bandmasters listed his name as Jewel, leaving out the second "l."

During his tenure, he said, the band had 120 members or less compared to about 300 now, while she said the orchestra was about 60 strong when she was there compared to more now.

"The band dates back 1,000 years at Dobyns-Bennett," Bachelder said, recalling that former D-B Band Director S.T. "Fess" Witt in the 1950s was presented a car in recognition for his work with the band. Witt and the band were in a Nov. 20, 1949, Kingsport Times-News article about making the band being a "long, hard grind" for students.

"My son played baritone for him (Tilson) and loved it," Bachelder said, adding that he went on to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, band for two years. Her daughter is a professional violinist at the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, and her son became an engineer.

Tilson has a son who teaches physics at a Knox County high school and a daughter who is a principal in Easley, S.C. Another son is deceased.

These days, the orchestra and band programs have larger and nicer areas in which to practice and store instruments at D-B.

"Lafe (current D-B Director Lafe Cook) got the (band) building built," Tilson said. "They tried to get me to move the ninth grade in (to the high school band) but I was reluctant."

Tilson said he was unsure the freshmen were ready for high school band, and until 1976 Bachelder said the ninth-graders attended Robinson or Sevier.

Tyler Fleming, who took over after Tilson, added the ninth grade to the band.

Aside from teaching, Bachelder played for 62 years for the Kingsport Symphony Orchestra, now the Symphony of the Mountains, and plays for the Johnson City Symphony now.

Bachelder said she didn't start her music teaching career until age 40, when as a housewife who had taught Susuki in Kingpsort and before that taught a year in Florida, took a job teaching one string class a day at Robinson Middle School for one school year, starting in 1972. She said the late Bill Robinson taught another string class then.

"We had a supervisor of music who wanted an orchestra," Bachelder said of Paul Arrington. "I was one of the few string players in the area, period."

Then, in 1975, the system — with Arrington's prodding, hired Bachelder full-time as orchestra director at D-B. Among her early students was Tammie Davis, who went on to become orchestra director at Sevier Middle School before moving to the school system's central office, where she is chief human resources officer.

"She (Davis) was one of my first students," Bachelder said. "Jewell was there and very cooperative and very supportive."

Bachelder and Tilson both taught "under the dome" at D-B, Bachelder from 1976 to 1995 and Tilson from 1968 to 1981.Tilson said he started his career in band directing in 1950 with three years at Elizabethton Junior High. Then, in 1953, he spent four years starting a band program in Washington County, Tenn., highs schools of Jonesborough, Washington College and Lamar.

"They had never had instrumental band in Washington County before," said Tilson, who lives in Kingsport.

He later spent three years at Elizabethton High, followed by 10 years at Chattanooga City High and, starting in 1968, 18 years in Kingsport, made up of 13 years at D-B and five years at Sevier. He retired from Sevier in 1986, when Tyler Fleming took over.

When Tilson started at D-B, the building was two years old and he took over from interim director Mel Kelly.

Asked about memorable times during their tenure at D-B, Tilson recalled the 1971-72 trip to the International Band Festival in Vienna, where the band placed first in concert competition.

Bachelder recalled a 1989 orchestra trip to the Mid-West Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago.

Both said they remain in contact with former students, some who became professional musicians.

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