Longtime Decatur band director retiring at year’s end

David Williams, who describes himself as “an old trombone player,” is retiring after 34 years as band director at Renfroe Middle School. Bill Banks for the AJC
David Williams, who describes himself as “an old trombone player,” is retiring after 34 years as band director at Renfroe Middle School. Bill Banks for the AJC

On May 17 David Williams’ eighth grade band and jazz ensemble delivers a typically eclectic mix of themes from, among others, “Star Wars” and “West Side Story,” along with John Coltrane’s effusive “Blue Train.” Williams says he won’t make much of a fuss, but most already know this is his coda after 34 years as band instructor at Decatur’s Renfroe Middle School.

He started in 1984 when Renfroe’s enrollment was less than half the size it is today and its reputation so dismal many parents sent their kids to private schools after the fifth grade.

“It was a tough place,” Williams said. “We had kids here way too old for the eighth grade, and for a long time I had second thoughts—that’s a gentle way of putting it. But looking back, it absolutely made me a better teacher.”

Williams, who turns 66 in July, grew up in Atlanta just beyond Decatur’s city limits, before his family moved to Lithonia when he was 13. His most indelible experience came at Southwest DeKalb High, playing trombone for S.E. Turrentine who eventually shaped Southwest into one of the nation’s most exhilarating prep marching bands.

It was also at Southwest he met a first-year flute player who later became a practicing musician herself, a music teacher and eventually his wife.

He and Merri Williams had five children and were married for over 42 years before her death from cancer in Jan. 2017.

“We were,” he said, “a perfect match.”

Though evolving considerably over the years Williams still believes John Philip Sousa’s marches a “staple” of any school band’s programming.

“I think you have to force feed marches,” he said. “When they begin to get it, then you move to the movie themes, the Broadway themes and the classics. Anything that’s been around 15 to 20 years, I consider that ‘classic.’ “

He can’t pinpoint any reason for retiring except he wants to spend more time with his family and that, “I’ve always believed a 65-year-old man shouldn’t be teaching middle school.

“I feel fortunate to have been here all this time,” Williams said. “It’s funny but I’ve never wanted to teach in high school. Here, you see the kids go from young and inexperienced—I’d say half the sixth graders who come here have never played—to truly young adults.

“By the eighth grade,” he added, “some may even decide to make a career of music.”

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