Don Lawler was born in Deport, Texas – a farming community near Paris, in September of 1940. At the age of five months, his family moved to Longview for his dad to begin work for an East Texas oil company. Two years later a sister, Annette, joined the family. They both attended Spring Hill public schools in Longview for twelve years.
Don’s band career began when school band director Paul Stroud (Hall of Fame Class of 1991) taught music fundamentals to a fourth grade class using “flute-o-phones” – often called song-flutes. At the beginning of the second semester, Director Stroud selected ten students in the class to receive real (school owned) band instruments. Don was given a Bb Cornet. Following several frustrating weeks, he was ready to return the cornet for some other student to have. Stroud quickly placed a pair of drum sticks into Don’s hands, and the band membership was sealed. When that class reached the sixth grade, they were marching in the high school band. The snare drum, carried by Don with a shoulder sling, bruised his knees so badly that his Mom begged him to quit before “damaging the knees permanently.” That was not a consideration.
Don was selected for the Texas All-State Band three times before graduating from Spring Hill High School in 1958. He played percussion in the Kilgore College and Stephen F. Austin State University bands while completing a business degree in accounting and economics. Facing the Selective Service draft, SFA band director Jim Hudgins (Hall of Fame Class of 2004), suggested that Don audition for one of the military band programs. He passed the audition and was assigned to the Air Force Band at Sheppard Air Base, Wichita Falls, Texas. While there he played timpani in the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra and met a young violinist named Mary Alice Ward. She had just graduated from the University of North Texas and was teaching orchestra in the Wichita Falls public schools. Although she was engaged to a “GI” stationed in Germany, she and Don enjoyed many symphony rehearsals, concerts and meals together for five months but they never had a “real date.” The friendship ended “temporarily” when the Air Force sent Don to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and Mary’s fiancé returned home.
Don returned to Longview in 1967, to find college band friends teaching in the East Texas area. Hall of Fame classmate Neil Grant had just taken the Longview High School band director’s job and persuaded Don to take a junior high job in the district. With only a percussion playing background and no music education study, Don learned quickly that the band students knew more than he did. With assistance from many colleagues, Don directed the band to its first UIL Sweepstakes award in the school’s history the second year he taught there. In 1968 Don and colleague James Snowden organized the Longview Symphony Orchestra and support group the Longview Symphony League. He played percussion and served as the orchestra business manager for ten years. Currently, the orchestra is in its 43rd season and is a major part of the arts community in East Texas.
In 1969 Don returned to Stephen F. Austin State University for a graduate assistantship with Mel Montgomery (Hall of Fame Class of 1994), completed TEA requirements for teacher certification and began work on his master’s degree. While there he continued his work with the summer band camps program, and was assistant director of the camps until 1986, when he and Mel both retired. Don learned many teaching methods and techniques from his observation of guest conductors and instructors during the 25 years. He completed his Master of Fine Arts degree in 1973.
Don began a long tenure of work with Longview’s Pine Tree school district in 1970, assisting high school director Jack England (Hall of Fame Class of 1995), and teaching with his first band director Paul Stroud. He directed the junior high bands for six years, leading the ninth grade band to many UIL Sweepstakes awards and to finalist honors in the TMEA Honor Band competition. The band won other local awards, competing with 1A, 2A and 3A high school bands in the area. He directed high school and middle school programs in Spring Hill and Kilgore school districts before returning to the Pine Tree school district and retiring from full time teaching in 1995.
In 1982 the Region 4 music directors and the Music Executive Committee selected Don to be the region’s UIL music executive secretary. He has completed 29 years of directing UIL music competitions for the region’s bands, choirs and orchestras.
In 1988, Don again joined colleague James Snowden in organizing the East Texas Symphonic Band, a community band consisting of adult and student musicians from the East Texas area. He continues to lead the percussion section of the band.
In 1992 while judging a solo and ensemble contest in Garland, Don had a surprise encounter with the Wichita Falls violinist, whom he had never forgotten and who was single again. They were married five months later. Mary continued teaching orchestra in the Kilgore and Tyler school districts before her retirement in 1996.
In 2003 Don was inducted into the Stephen F. Austin State University Band Directors Hall of Fame. He holds membership in TMEA, TBA, TMAA, Phi Beta Mu International Band Masters Fraternity, and is a lifetime member of Kappa Kappa Psi Fraternity. He is a past president of the SFA Band Alumni Association, and was a founding member and officer of the National Association of Military Marching Bands
Don is extremely proud of the former band and percussion students who have won All Region and All State Band honors and are successfully performing and teaching in the music profession. He owes many thanks to mentors and colleagues – Paul Stroud, Jimmy Hudgins, Neil Grant, Bobby Goff, Mel Montgomery, Jimmy Yancey and others for their guidance, encouragement and support throughout his teaching career.
Don has continued part-time teaching since his retirement. For the past thirteen years he has been the percussion teacher for Spring Hill ISD in Longview. He teaches other students in area schools upon request and mentors young beginning directors. He and Mary reside in Longview and enjoy singing in the East Texas Community Chorus. When time permits, he enjoys landscaping, attempting to keep a yard that is admired by all in the neighborhood.