Passing the Baton

D. Alan Fowler’s drive for excellence in music turned the Eastside High School band program into the envy of countless others. Having turned over the reins to one of his proteges following the 2021–22 school year, he now charts his course into a new frontier with the Georgia Music Educators Association.

by Nat Harwell

One fine spring afternoon in 1996, I found myself seated in the conference room at what was then the Eastside Transitional School. Ed Elmore—the school’s first principal and the man who built a family feel into the charter faculty that persists to this day—had summoned me to be part of a committee to interview a candidate for the director of bands position. 

A youthful, genuinely enthusiastic gentleman was being interviewed. He was a University of Georgia graduate, a stellar sousaphone player in the Redcoat Marching Band, carried a master’s degree in conduction from Ball State University, had married a flag corps member of the Redcoats and at the time served as the assistant band director at nearby Salem High School. His knowledge of music and education was spot-on, and he answered all the tricky questions the committee could muster with aplomb. After an hour or so, Elmore asked if there were any other questions. The young man unexpectedly spoke out. 

“If I may ask, I have a question for Mr. Harwell,” he said, much to my astonishment. “I’m wondering if you remember teaching my seventh grade Sunday School class at the Riverdale Methodist Church when you worked for Delta.”

So it was that I rekindled my friendship with a young man who would for the next 26 years fashion The Pride of Eastside marching band into a highly regarded ensemble. His name: D. Alan Fowler, husband to Susan and father to Katie Beth and Grace. 

Fowler was hired for the 1996–97 school year, the last before Eastside had its first graduating class of seniors as a high school. For more than two decades, he built the fledgling program to a point where the football marching band fielded 140 members. When Alcovy High School opened due to reapportionment, it took a significant number of Eastside students with it. Fowler put his shoulder to the grindstone and continued to build the program back to full strength. Along the way, he proved to be much more than just a guy waving a baton.

“I will never forget the day in 2007 when our son took the stage at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music for his senior trombone recital. The door opened, and in walked Fowler. He had driven all the way from Covington—more than 500 miles—for the event.”

Nat Harwell

The late T.K. Adams founded the Newton Counting Community Band in 1993, eventually enlisted Fowler’s assistance and passed the torch to him in 2014. It continues to flourish under Fowler’s direction. Beyond that, Fowler reached out to band directors at all county middle and high schools, fostering cooperation which led to selected musicians from all schools being featured in concerts and special events on The Square in downtown Covington. All the while, he kept producing musicians with great prowess at Eastside. The marching band and his small- and large-group ensembles won statewide notice with superior ratings in contests too numerous to list. Eastside musicians were regularly found in honor bands, all-state bands and Governor’s Honors programs.

Fowler’s outreach stretched into other realms of community service, as well. He brought TubaChristmas—a holiday event showcasing tuba and euphonium players in Christmas concerts across the nation—to Newton County. In a pre-pandemic year at the Porter Memorial Gymnasium, it was my pleasure to sit beside Eastside graduate and tubist Elijah Clark when 50 musicians participated. When Fowler retired from Eastside following the 2021–22 school year, Clark was named as his successor. So it was that the man who wrote the Eastside Alma Mater passed the baton to one of his proteges.

Because of Fowler’s influence and the success of his students, his name was bandied about at the highest levels of Georgia music makers. The Georgia Music Educators Association—the umbrella organization that oversees all in-service conferences every January, all-state chorus and all-state band auditions and convocations each March, statewide elementary honor chorus, sixth-grade chorus and so much more—took interest. 

It was impossible not to witness Fowler’s effect most everywhere the GMEA turned. Back in the early 2000s, his Eastside trombone choir was featured in concert performances at Georgia Music Educators Association meetings, and when all-state band festivities were being hosted in Savannah, there was one legendary outing during which band directors went out on a chartered fishing boat for a “Band Directors Challenge” to see who could land the biggest fish. Fowler caught the biggest fish and named him Harvey in honor of Harvey Phillips—a tuba player and instructor at the University of Indiana who founded TubaChristmas. 

GMEA Executive Director Cecil Wilder had been considering retirement for some time, and an email to all members in February announced the forthcoming vacancy. Almost immediately, emails began pouring into Fowler urging him to apply for the position. Band directors across the state knew of the many Eastside graduates who marched in major university bands right out of high school. In fact, six of them celebrated on Jan. 20 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where the Georgia Bulldogs defeated Alabama to win their first college football national championship since 1980. Five more Eastside graduates joined the Redcoats for the 2022–23 season.

Beyond that, there is this caveat: Fowler has personally attended senior music recitals for former members of The Pride of Eastside marching band with regularity long after his responsibility to them ended. I will never forget the day in 2007 when our son took the stage at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music for his senior trombone recital. The door opened, and in walked Fowler. He had driven all the way from Covington—more than 500 miles—for the event. 

Fowler now takes his enthusiasm and his drive for excellence in music to a whole new level as executive director of the Georgia Music Educators Association, which boasts 2,800 members as one of the largest such organizations in the country. As he leaves the Eastside program in Clark’s capable hands, I am reminded of lyrics from the late Dan Fogelberg, who placed a tribute to his father in a song titled “The Leader of the Band.” It feels fitting to ascribe this to Alan Fowler: “… his blood runs through my instrument, and his song is in my soul. My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man; I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band.” 

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