Remembering Pete Evans
"He instilled pride in us…"
BAND DIRECTOR 24 YEARS – As director of the Milan school band program for 24 years, Pete Evans had a significant influence on thousands of students. Evans died this month at the age of 61. He was director of the Milan school band program from fall, 1972 until spring, 1996 and served as superintendent three years. This picture appeared in a Milan High School yearbook.
By Steve Short
He was a mentor and a motivator.
A teacher who inspired his students.
A father figure and a good friend.
The tributes flowed easily and with deep emotion last week from friends and former students of James F. "Pete" Evans, long-time band director, later school superintendent in Milan. Evans died Nov. 29 in Jackson at the age of 61 following a long bout with cancer.
Remembrances of Evans by former students and band volunteers paint a picture of a man who profoundly impacted the lives of many. "He was the most influential person in my life," said David Koelz, a 1980 Milan grad and band director at Humboldt High twelve years. "When I try to pattern myself after someone, it’s Pete. He had a legitimate concern for kids; they were his number one priority. I never felt like Pete was doing it for himself; he was doing it for the kids.
"As a band director he was a great motivator. He would say he was not a great musician, but he was successful through motivation of kids and putting in time. His approach was, ‘I will put in whatever amount of time it takes to be successful.’
Evans directed the Milan band program 24 school terms, from fall, 1972 until spring, 1996. In those years, Milan’s band won acclaim, mirroring the success of the school’s football team. It may have been more than coincidence that Evans’ bands accompanied football teams coached by John Tucker. Evans played football for Tucker at Parsons, marching with the band at halftime in his football uniform.
At least ten of Evans’ band students followed in their director’s footsteps, becoming directors themselves. Others pursued degrees in music. "It’s incredible when you have so many students who want to follow in your path," Koelz noted. "He was a mentor to eighty percent of the band directors in West Tennessee."
"I felt like we were better people because of Pete," added Koelz. "Even if we weren’t going to be band directors or music educators, we were better people because of knowing him and the influences he gave to us. He wasn’t a fake or a false person. If you didn’t want to hear the truth you didn’t need to ask him."
"He’s the main reason I chose my field of music education," said Cory Bridges, band director at West Carroll.
"He instilled pride in us"
Richard Rice was a freshman saxophone player when Evans came to Milan in summer, 1972. The Milan band had slipped into turmoil under another director, said Rice. Several students quit the band the year before Evans’ arrival.
"When Pete came in the program did an ‘about face,’" said Rice. "People came back to the band. He instilled pride in us like the football team had under Coach Tucker."
An all-state basketball player at Milan, Rice says Evans went out of his way to help Rice coordinate his schedule to accommodate band and sports. "I think since Pete played football and was in the band in high school, he understood about being an athlete and a musician," said Rice.
"Pete knew that everybody is an individual," said David Koelz. "He would accept you the way you were and not try to change you to fit some mold."
Friend and father figure
Evans could discipline students while developing friendships with them. "I had a lot of respect for what he knew," said Keith Pope, a band student in the mid 1970s. "He was a good teacher and a good friend. I have so many fond memories of him. He instilled discipline in the whole band, and you wanted to do a good job for him. He’s probably been the most influential person in my life."
"He was like a father figure, but he would do things with us when most adults wouldn’t want to be around us," said Koelz. "You could always talk to him. He and Janie always had their house open; everything they did was for the kids. Pete loved the students. He was a non-selfish person."
Richard Rice remembered one particular display of students’ admiration for Evans. It occurred during a band contest in Mayfield, KY when the Milan band won a first place trophy over a band directed by former Milan director Bill Watson.
"It was one of the happiest moments of my life," said Rice. "We were so happy and so excited that we picked Pete up in the air and carried him on our shoulders," laughed Rice. "Now Pete was a big man! It didn’t take us a long to say to ourselves, ‘What are we doing?’ We were so proud. We had proved a point that we could win."
Several students called Evans an innovator. "He was ahead of his time," said Keith Pope. "He was doing all kinds of things with the band that were new back in the seventies. He wrote drills for all of his shows himself. He was very innovative in putting a show together and making the show pleasing to the crowd and the judges."
Evans is credited with being the first director in the area to have a band march backwards. It happened in the Humboldt Strawberry Festival parade.
"The rule was that you couldn’t stop a band during the parade to do your show for judges," said Keith Pope. "Pete said, ‘You don’t want me to stop the band, and you don’t want me to do a show? Then we’re going to do something different. The band marched backwards."
Don Farmer covered band events for the Mirror-Exchange and as mayor worked with Evans. "There were so many times Pete would put together a band show, and then the next year other band directors would copy things from it," said Farmer. "Pete wanted the band to look good; he wanted them to have good uniforms. He didn’t want the band on the street if they didn’t meet people’s expectations. He wanted to produce shows that people wanted to see and that the kids in the band liked to do."
Evans was highly regarded by other band directors, an "icon" one person said. Evans was president of the Tennessee Bandmasters’ Association and developed the Milan Marching Festival into one of the longest-running traditions in the state.
David Koelz said one of his favorite memories of Evans occurred in Humboldt the night before the Strawberry Festival parade. "All the band directors in the county would get together and line the street," said Koelz. "Pete would show up in his pajamas. That was his personality."
"He took care of kids"
Evans is remembered as a teacher, not just a band director. He helped initiate Milan High School’s Academic Excellence banquet to recognize scholars. He and wife, Janie also coached Odyssey of the Mind teams. Pete helped with his church choir as well.
In the fall, 1996, Evans became superintendent of Milan schools, serving three school terms. His tenure as school director involved some controversy, ending in the summer, 1999 when a new school board bought out his contract. But with his students and those who worked with him, Evans instilled a lasting loyalty.
"He was a good person; he treated everybody fairly," recalled Al Brown, Band Parents president five years and a former school board member. "Pete had a way of gaining respect and inspiring people to do their best. He set high standards. He took a lot of students who were headed in the wrong direction and got them steered in the right direction."
Brown’s daughters, Andrea and Alison were field commanders for Evans. Brown saw Evans and his wife, Janie help many students financially. "Pete did a lot of things for band kids that people wouldn’t know about," said Brown. "He would help them pay for a dental appointment or get their teeth straightened. When kids couldn’t walk up to a McDonald’s because they didn’t have money, Pete and Janie would pay for their food."
Bill Welch and Mary Welch saw a similar side to Evans. Bill was Band Parents president when Evans came to Milan. The Welches had two daughters, Brenda and Coleen in the band. Brenda was field commander.
"Pete is one in a million," said Mary Welch. "The way he conducted himself with children and the respect he got from all the children was impressive. He was the same toward every kid. If a child came to him for help, Pete would see that that child got a pair of shoes or gloves or whatever they needed."
"Pete had a lot of letters in his education credentials, but I added two more – ‘PC,’" said Bill Welch. "He was a ‘Practicing Christian.’ In the thirty-one years that I knew him, I never recall hearing him say one bad word about anybody. Having the opportunity to know him was a blessing for me."
"He enriched our lives"
Tammy Fisher Koelz, former Milan field commander, is now a professional pharmacist and says Evans as an inspiration. "He’s a man who touched a lot of lives," said Koelz. "He gave me confidence to be successful and encouraged me to succeed. He was my major influence and is responsible for where I am today."
Diana Holmes Levaton is a former MHS band majorette now living in Paris, France where she is model. Mrs. Levaton shared these comments about Evans in an email message: "Milan lost one of its best this week. Pete Evans was a mentor and friend to several generations of Milanites. As the Milan High School band director, he enriched the lives of so many young men and women. He didn’t just teach us to play an instrument or to march in unison, he taught us the importance of working together towards a common goal. He taught us responsibility, discipline, and respect for one another. I feel blessed to have been one of his students, and I will never forget him. He will be missed."
Pete Evans’ legacy
Former students of Pete Evans who have gone on to become band directors
include: David Koelz – Humboldt; David Wood – Memphis, Darrell Evans –
Gibson Co., Larry Gordon – formerly director at Crockett Co. now living in
Cory Bridges – West Carroll; Joe Hodge – California, Derek Jones – Lambuth, Gil Rollins – Gibson Co., Karen Mallard Bundy – North Mississippi, Dave Brochocki – Nashville.
Jim Ramsey is a choral director completing his doctorate at the Univ. of Colorado.
Students completing degrees and post-graduate degrees in music include: Andy Rein, Andrea Brown, Mike Smith, Curtis Housell, Jerry Douglas, Robbie Parks, Pam Brochocki.
Other former Evans’ students majoring in music in college include: Jeff Chadd, Kevin Patterson, Josh Moore, Craig Thomas, Andy Brown and Chad Adams.
This article courtesy of Steve Short and the Milan Mirror-Exchange Newspaper. Originally printed Dec. 5, 2000