Former WHS band leader reflects on his career
By Scott Nicholson
Add your comment here
Watauga County’s long-time high school band director is putting down his baton, but he’ll remain active both in county government and at the Horn in the West grounds.
Billy Ralph Winkler has served as band director for 28 years, helping the school build its reputation as boasting a multi-award-winning band program. Winkler made the decision to retire a month ago.
“I still love every minute that I spend teaching,” Winkler said. “There’s a lot of change going on with the school system, and I think change is good. There are new administrators and a new high school. It’s starting from scratch and building programs, and while it’s exciting to be in on the ground floor, I am at the point where I would be handing it over to someone else who wouldn’t have had a say in building it. It’s time to step aside for the good of the program and take on a support role.”
Winkler is a Boone native who was always interested in music.
“As a little boy, I always used to conduct my records with a Lincoln log,” he said, having joined the band and chorus in elementary school.
“I didn’t really think about it as a career until I was in high school.”
He majored in music at Appalachian State University at a time when the music department was growing.
Bill Spencer was the departmental chairman and Charles Isley was head of the band program.
“It was just a real exciting time to be there,” Winkler said.
After getting his bachelor’s degree of music education in 1973, he took a teaching job in Davie County for five years. He eventually returned to the mountains, teaching music at Bethel, Mabel and Cove Creek elementary schools.
Isley became band director at the high school, and Winkler helped him, then moved to the position upon Isley’s retirement in 1980.
“It’s always new because you’re starting over every year,” Winkler said.
“Part of the joy is most of the students would take band all four years, so they become almost like family. Coaches, I’m sure, have almost the same situation. The relationships are very lasting. I still hear from former students. One of my tuba students named his son after me. It was great to watch them grow and mature both as a person and musically all those years.”
Each year also brought new challenges. “For me, it was learning to rediscover it,” he said.
“When the students got it, it was like it was happening all over again. I got to make my living doing what I love and sharing that with others who had the same interest and I feel very fortunate.”
Winkler enjoys listening to music besides what he hears for his professional growth.
“If you were actually able to look in the CDs in my truck, it’s by people who make fun of what I do,” he said, mentioning Ray Stevens, Weird Al Yankovic, Spike Jones, and P.D.Q. Bach.
“I find it refreshing to sit back and not take it too seriously,” he said, noting his “intense artistic temperament” that propelled him to be a perfectionist in performance. “But I’m never too far away from Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago. I love any kind of music by anyone who obviously loves what they’re doing.”
His main instrument is the trumpet, though he learned the fundamentals of many instruments in order to teach them.
“I love to sing,” he said. “I love church choir work, and maybe I’ll have more time for that, too.”
He’s taken over conducting the community band, and he’s also served as guest conductor for several regional clinic bands. He’s also hoping to finish a lot of compositions he’s never finished.
“I really love writing and arranging,” he said, working on some marching band and jazz band pieces. “For the last 20 years, I’ve been working on an opera. I may never finish that, but we’ll see.”
He will also have more time to spend at the Southern Appalachian Historical Association’s property and the Horn in the West.
Winkler’s ancestors once owned the land that covers the Horn in the West grounds, as well as the current high school and the Boone Mall.
Though he never inherited the properties, he said that helped him feel a real affinity for the community. He started working at the Horn in the West at the age of 14, sweeping up and helping get the grounds ready for the summer season.
“I didn’t know when I started working here that my grandfather was one of the founders,” he said. “I didn’t think about it. I just thought it was neat. My first job was setting up the chairs, raking leaves and sweeping.”
Now, decades later as a a volunteer, he’s still doing the same tasks, only he jokes that he doesn’t get paid for it. He used to act out all the outdoor drama’s parts when he was a kid. He’s a member of the Southern Appalachian Historical Association’s board of directors as a way to continue his love of the project.
“I didn’t quit working at the Horn even when I was in Davie,” he said, making sure his jobs would allow him to be in Boone during the summer. “I would drive in on the first week and back on the last week.
“One of the things that’s exciting is the new interest in and resurgence of the Horn,” he said.
“We almost forgot it for a while. It’s a beautiful spot right here in the middle of town. The organization is starting to show once again that they can be a viable part of the community.”
Winkler said the outdoor drama is never out of date because it conveyed the area’s role in the founding of the country. Renovations will be done in phases at the Horn in the West grounds, and Winkler praised the town of Boone’s support for the projects.
He said the grounds are now better and safer, though many of the improvements aren’t readily visible. Winkler met his future wife at the Horn in the West, and his daughter met her future spouse at the outdoor drama.
“One of the things that’s been real gratifying to me both in school and here is that all three of my children have been in the show and have volunteered, and all three were in band in high school, too,” he said.
“So in the two real careers I have, I’ve been able to work with my children. I feel real blessed to have had that.”
A pilot, he bought a 1976 Cessna to fly around and develop his skills, and hopes to soar the skies over Boone more regularly now that’s he retired.
Elected as a county commissioner in 2004, he’s unopposed for reelection this fall. “It’s a lot more time-consuming than people realize,” he said.
“I’m not giving up teaching to increase my time in politics, but whatever I’m going to do, I want to do a good job of it, and realizing my limitations is part of my decision.”