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Fran Shelton to retire as HHS band director

Fran Shelton acknowledges applause after the HHS Band played a Disney concert to thank the community. Fran Shelton acknowledges applause after the HHS Band played a Disney concert to thank the community.

A Disney tribute show at Hendersonville High School Sunday afternoon drew more than the usual number of past band boosters, longtime HHS band followers and friends of Fran Shelton, the band’s longtime director.

Although the place was only about half full, there was an electric buzz in the air.
Word had spread that Shelton was retiring.
When the show ended, nothing happened. Shelton escaped. Tiffany Lemmens, the teary-eyed president of the band boosters, could not coax the band director out of wherever she hid.
Quietly, when the HHS Symphonic Band played the last note of “Burning Love” from “Lilo and Stitch” at 4:22 p.m., the Shelton era came to an end.
Shelton hoped to escape pomp and ceremony over her retirement.
“I’m not gone until August,” she said on Monday morning. In fact, she’s taking 10 HHS students as part of a 96-piece high school ambassadors band tour of Europe this summer.
But as far as marching band, Friday night football, the endless rehearsals, the laser glare at a mistimed drum beat or cracked trumpet note, the grueling bus rides to the most renowned concert halls in America, the insistence on manners and decorum, Ms. Shelton’s famous drill-sergeant discipline of the HHS band … well, that time has come to an end.

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“My band director was there for 20 years,” said Jim Stokes. Earl Martin led the HHS band from 1948 to ’68, when Stokes took over. He served for 20 years, until he handed the baton to Shelton, in 1987.
“I taught Fran from the sixth grade on,” said Stokes, a native of the area who still lives in Hendersonville. “She’s an excellent student, very talented. She’s just one of the best. The teachers always like to have a student like her.”
When she graduated from HHS, Shelton, a trumpet player, enrolled at Mars Hills, studying under the director of bands, Ray Babelay.
“He called me one day and said ‘this is the most determined little gal I’ve ever taught,’” Stokes said.
After graduating cum laude with degrees in elementary education and music education, Shelton earned a masters degree in music education from Appalachian State University. She taught band at tiny Robbinsville High School for five years before coming home to teach young musicians and make her own mark. Like the band directors before her, she taught both middle school and high school bands.
“She’s very talented,” Stokes said. “Besides her talent, she’s very personable. She just demands the best out of them and that’s what you have to do as a teacher. You don’t think less than the best. You have to drill them pretty hard. She’s a good drillmaster. She knows how to handle the kids very well.”
The band program has been strong throughout its 90-year history. During an awards assembly on Monday, HHS principal Bobby Wilkins talked about how Shelton had kept that torch burning.
“She’s one of four band directors that Hendersonville High School has ever had in its history and that goes back to late ‘20s,” he said. “That’s about as a big a thing as I could say.”
“She’s continued that strong program,” he added. “It has grown since she’s been there. She added the jazz band and made it a real positive for the community — not just for the school but for community — and kept it as strong as it ever was.”
Wilkins is interviewing candidates for the job now.

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Determined she was, as the Mars Hill band director said.
The HHS band was like Duke basketball or New England Patriots football, good year after year, because the coach demanded excellence, no matter the talent level. Giving 110 percent is a sports cliché, of course, but nowhere was it lived more regularly than in Shelton’s bandroom.
“She’s been such a good coach over the years,” said Ken Kraus, an HHS classmate of Shelton’s who has sent all 10 of his children to her classroom. “Watching her with marching band was pretty incredible. She would take a 20-piece band into these competitions and scare the bejesus out of these 120-piece bands. That’s because she was very very good at her craft. She’s not only a good teacher but she was a great coach.”
If she lost 25 top musicians to graduation, Shelton would mourn for five minutes before moving on.
“She knew how to encourage the right people to step forward,” said Kraus, a trombone player who still performs regularly. “This year she had two or three people who played so far above their ability. That’s how she did it. She’s a great motivator. She believes in excellence.
“This year, she brought in people to do extra coaching,” he added. “I was one of them. She’s not so proud that she’s going to do it by herself. She enlisted help. The kids put in hours and hours and hours. I think what Hendersonville is going to be losing is a great motivator and a great teacher. She was all about team.
“The ironic thing is she was a very good individual player and yet her bands are not like she is. Her bands are all about balance, about blend, about everybody playing up to the best player. Her bands are not top heavy. Isn’t that what team is all about?”
While they were in band, the kids ages 14 to 19 sometimes were reduced to tears by the drilling, the pressure, the constant demand to get it right, get it right, get it right. Life lessons, Kraus said, were being learned.
“I told my kids if they weren’t going to be in marching band they were going to be in athletics,” he said. “They didn’t like the drilling. They didn’t like the toughness. But you know what? That’s what life is. Life is like year after year after year of Ms. Shelton. It teaches you so much toward other things.”

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As a band booster president, Kelly Peck said she felt blessed to be part of something with the quality and tradition of the Hendersonville High School band. The pressure was there, even for band moms and dads, but worth it.
“It’s been one of the most rewarding things Tom and I have done in North Carolina,” she said. “I think most band directors are pretty comfortable with their band booster presidents. But you know what? I never stopped being afraid of her.”

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Shelton has won most every award a high school band director can win. She’s taken the band to Carnegie Hall, Chicago Symphony Hall and Kennedy Center. She’s taken them as far west as San Diego and north to Chicago and to many of America’s most famous parades.
For 28 years, both at Hendersonville Middle School and at the high school, you’d be hard-pressed to find a kid who didn’t believe he was in “Ms. Shelton’s band.” Ms. Shelton would be the first to say otherwise. Hendersonville High School had the band tradition forever. It had the tradition before she first took a seat herself to play trumpet. When she took the baton from Jim Stokes, she carried on the tradition, expanded the band’s horizons, piled up Superior, Grand Champion and Best in Show trophies like cordwood. Even though it’s true that the music will go on and the class of 2016 and 2017 and on and on will carry on the tradition, there won’t be another Ms. Shelton.