Houston County band director retires

WARNER ROBINS -- Houston County High School has only had one band director, but that’s about to change.

Wally Shaw, 56, is retiring.

Shaw has spent 24 of his 34 professional years as a band director at the school, and his tenure there began before he actually had a place to work.

“My first day was July 1, 1991, and the roof was not even on the fine arts building yet,” he said.

Shaw spent his first 10 years as an educator directing the band at Appling County High School, his alma mater. He had been told about the new school in Houston County, and while visiting friends in Perry, he drove by the school’s construction site.

“I thought, ‘You know, that would be a lot of fun,’” he recalled.

He put his name in for consideration and got the call from then-Principal Sandra Neal that he had received the job. Even though he had a “relatively generous budget,” the band had no uniforms, no boosters and very few musicians.

“Basically, it’s been like building a sand castle. ... You just start with that first scoop of sand,” he said. “My first scoop of sand was seven kids at our first band practice.”

Since then, the band had grown to as many as 400 students before Veterans High School opened, and the group numbered about 300 this year. To keep the band as large and successful as he has -- seven Houston County High students made All-State band and the marching band won multiple competitions this school year -- Shaw has kept his focus on the students, said drum instructor Miguel Castro.

“For one thing, he’s the kind of band director that really believes in the students,” said Castro, who has worked with Shaw for the last 23 years. “(He) never really writes anyone off.”

Shaw also brings in outside instructors to help students learn. Assistant band director Travis Roy, who has worked with Shaw for 10 years, said that helps the students grow in their musical understanding and keeps the community involved in the program.

“Anybody that was in the Air Force band that still lives here ... helps us out,” Roy said.

That adds to the enjoyment students find with Shaw’s band practices. Junior Allison Tankersley plays both flute and percussion, and she said that began with lessons from outside experts.

“It gives you a wider variety on how music can be learned,” she said. “It sort of opens your mind.”

Shaw, who will be replaced by former Eagles Landing Christian Academy band director Jay Davis, is having to open his mind to what’s next. Even though he made the decision to retire from Houston County, that didn’t ease the reality that set in Friday afternoon.

“I’m trying not to think about the fact that the bell rang 10 minutes ago, and I’m no longer the band director here,” he said.

In addition to playing golf and fishing, Shaw said he’d be attending to a list of “to-dos” that his wife, Julia Nell, has been collecting over the years. He’ll also be helping his son, Jim, prepare for Auburn University’s music program.

Wally and Julia Nell also have two daughters, Catheryn Shaw and Claire Fermin.

Shaw said he has other “irons in the fire,” such as training and teaching at local colleges and universities, but one thing is for sure. He won’t be in a high school anymore, for the first time in 34 years.

“I am now going to have to decide what to do when I grow up,” he said.

To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331.