Editor's note: The late J.C. Connor wrote this story about the formative years of what is now the Crestview High School band. It first appeared in the News Bulletin's 2008 observance of the band's 70th anniversary. Connor served for many years in the Okaloosa County School District, volunteered at the Baker Block Museum and, until he died last fall, was the Big Red Machine's historian.
CRESTVIEW — In 1938, several key residents of the sleepy little town of Crestview decided that it was “time for some culture,” so they set about getting a band.
A committee comprising school board member H. Claude Garrett, Dr. E. A. Fleming, W.E. Duggan, Tom Fountain, Cortez Campbell, Mallory Barrow and George W. Barrow enticed Romulus Hunter Thompson, the assistant band director at DeFuniak Springs, to accept the directorship of a band that existed only in a small group of civic visionaries’ pipe dreams.
Thompson, a Water Valley, Ky., native dropped out of high school to play his saxophone and violin in bands that played dance halls and hotels in the 1920s the Tampa and Miami area.
After a short stint with the Tampa Symphony Orchestra, Thompson returned to high school when his family moved to DeFuniak Springs.
At Walton High School, he was an athlete playing football and baseball while finding time to organize and perform in a dance band. He later became the band director’s assistant at Walton. During the Depression, he was hired to teach music at other schools in Walton County.
The Okaloosa County school district was perpetually short of funding; often, teachers were paid in script or promissory notes to be redeemed when the school board had funds. Thompson and committee members made the rounds to all of the local stores asking that the promissory notes be signed over to the band. In a show of civic support, they all donated the notes, assuring that if Thompson could teach, Crestview would have a band.
Thompson taught each student individually. The newly formed Okaloosa School Band soon was able to play simple songs and marches. The band debuted on June 4, 1938, with a parade down Main Street followed by a concert on the courthouse lawn.
Thompson was dismayed when shown the local football field, locally known as “Sandspur Field.” The name was well-given as it was a sand bed full of “stickers,” totally unsuitable for a marching band. Games were played in the afternoon as there were no lights and no real seating.
After getting a very skeptical principal and football coach to agree to give the band half of the gate if the band could get a real lighted field and stands built, Romulus formed the first band booster organization in Okaloosa County.
Several citizens, including Claude Garrett, put up the money for field lighting. Bill Duggan donated lumber from his sawmill for the stands. A farmer donated grass to sod the field. The Baker School FFA and several band parents laid the sod and built the stands.
Thus, in the fall of 1938, the first night football game in Okaloosa County was played in a newly lighted Sandspur Field. There were 600 spectators who paid $1 each to see the game and watch the first halftime show by a band in Okaloosa County. True to their word, the principal and coach handed over half of the gate receipts to the band. According to Thompson, “we never had any trouble with money after that.”
Ambition and competition
Thompson entered the band in its first district band festival in the spring of 1939 in DeFuniak Springs. The band played in class "C” — a class higher than they should have been in — and won the highest rating possible.
At the same festival in 1940, Thompson took an incredible risk and entered the band — which still should have been in class “D” — in the highest level, class "A." He believed the Crestview students’ talent and work ethic would offset their inexperience. The band competed against the larger, more experienced Pensacola band and again received another “First Division” rating.
The Crestview High School Band and its incredible young bandmaster’s fame gained attention from many throughout the state, including the administration of the Leon County School District in Tallahassee.
Thompson was hired to start and organize the Leon High School Band in Tallahassee. Thus after only two years, Crestview’s band, through firmly established, was without a leader.
Several directors followed Thompson — none staying more than a few years until the long reign of David Cadle, today Crestview's mayor. Perhaps most notable was Virginia Ferdon, the Crestview High School band’s only female director, who served 1942-1946.