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Tarleton State Bands

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A History of the Tarleton State Bands

The Tarleton Military Marching Band

By Frank Chamberlain

Band seatedThe first marching band at Tarleton was organized in 1919 with only nine members. The students were not very experienced and did not know any marches. They had also never performed in public. Since that time, it evolved into one of the finest marching assemblies in the state (Guthrie 383).

Dennis G. Hunewell deserves credit for turning this small and unrefined group into an elite marching unit. Hunewell was hired at Tarleton in 1920 and immediately began the arduous task of building the Military Band that would eventually bring a considerable amount of acclaim to the university. He conducted the band until his retirement in 1942 (Guthrie 382-385).

The Military Band was a key component in Dean J. Thomas Davis’s massive public relations projects of the 1920s and 1930s. One of the largest of these events was the special “Tarleton Day” at the 1922 State Fair of Texas. The cadets exhibited their marching precision in a parade through the fairgrounds and presented a concert for the fairgoers. In 1924, the band performed several songs on a national broadcast on WBAP radio. It was even a featured performer at the 1933 inauguration of governor Miriam Ferguson. The mere fact that the band was allowed to perform in such public forums speaks volumes about their abilities and of the dedication of Dennis Hunewell (Guthrie 53-54, 283-384).

Over the years, the Marching Band performed in hundreds of cities across Texas, earning numerous accolades and awards. These prizes included several victories in the San Antonio “Battle of the Flowers” which was the most prominent band contest of the 1920s and 1930s (Guthrie 384-385).marching unit

The most elite ROTC unit was the Wainwright Rifles drill team that was established in 1949. (This division was named after World War II General Mayhew Wainwright who commanded the American troops in the Philippines.) The students who composed this unit were required to audition and were voted on by the rest of the members. While marching, the Rifles did not employ a set pattern in their demonstrations. They learned a few basic movements, and then relied upon a great deal of improvisation. Their considerable skills were exhibited statewide at numerous competitions, army bases, and every home football game. The Rifles’ finest moment occurred in 1961, when they were invited to perform at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, they did not appear on television broadcasts of the events due to delays caused by poor weather (Guthrie 367-368). 

The Wainwright Rifles have faded as a campus tradition in the last twenty years. A lack of student interest has prevented the unit from regaining its former glory. However, the Rifles are remembered at each home football game as the three-member ROTC color guard dons the traditional Wainwright uniforms and performs a brief march (Guthrie 369).

Guthrie, Christopher. John Tarleton and his Legacy: The History of Tarleton State University, 1899-1999. Acton, MA: Tapestry Press, 1999.

Leaders/Directors of the Tarleton Band
  • 1919 J.A. Ault
  • 1920 Dennis G. Hunewell
  • 1942 Harold J. Bluhm
  • 1944 Verdis L. Mays
  • 1946 Robert B. Hutchinson
  • 1948 Randolph H. Foster
  • 1952 C.F. Jones
  • 1953 William Lee Hill
  • 1955 Charles Vick
  • 1958 Trawick (Died October 13, 1958)
  • 1958/1959 Hilmer Wagner (Appointed January 1, 1959)
  • 1967 James E. Smith
  • 1970 Dr. Curtis Owen
  • 1977 James Larson
  • 1980 C. Lee South
  • 1982 Dr. C. John Keith
  • 1983 Milton Fox
  • 1986 Jonathan Hooper
  • 2008 Dr. Reginald Houze (Interim)
  • 2009 Greg Ball (Interim)
  • 2010 Dr. Anthony Pursell
Assistant Directors of the Tarleton Band
  • 1978 Alois Piskor
  • 1982 Dr. David Feller
  • 1983 Jonathan Hooper
  • 1990 Greg Ball (Jazz)
  • 1999 Joseph Bowman (Marching Band)
  • 2001 Daryn Obrecht (Marching Band)
  • 2003 Rich Bahner (Marching Band)
  • 2009 Dr. Gary Westbrook (Marching Band)
Dennis G. Hunewell

By Chris Guthrie

hunnewellAlthough neither born nor raised in Texas, Dennis G. Hunewell served his adopted state well and created a powerful legacy at Tarleton that is still felt today. He was born on July 27, 1876, in Elk, Kansas. As a boy, he studied music at home with his parents and itinerant music teachers. Showing a great deal of promise in this area, he entered Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas as a music major in 1895. He began his teaching career the following year, 1896, holding various positions in schools in California and Arizona for the next five years. He returned to Bethany College in 1901 to further his music education and would remain in Lindsborg for six years as a student and instructor at the small college. Hunewell left Kansas in 1907, finally ending up in Texas in 1911 where he became a private music teacher and assistant director of a military band in El Campo. He did an outstanding job in El Campo, as illustrated by the fact that one of his young female music students there later moved to Chicago and became a critically acclaimed violinist. His reputation in El Campo brought Hunewell to the attention of Charles Froh, who recommended him to J. Thomas Davis, the newly appointed Dean at Tarleton. Davis hired the young musician in 1919 to serve as brass and woodwinds teacher as well as marching band and stage orchestra director. Davis recognized that a band could play an important role in his strategy of improving the image and reputation of Tarleton through a carefully orchestrated publicity campaign. He also believed Hunewell possessed the talent and drive to carry out his plan. Hunewell moved to Stephenville and began his new job in the fall of 1920. He would remain for the rest of his life.

Contrary to legend, Hunewell did not create Tarleton’s marching band completely from scratch. But he might as well have. An examination of yearbooks from the period indicates that a small nine-piece band had been formed by J.A. Ault in 1919, a year before Hunewell arrived. Though its members were “very enthusiastic,” they didn’t know marches and had never performed in public. Hunewell took this small and rather unpromising foundation and, in the years that followed, built a first-class musical organization, which did indeed bring Tarleton to the positive attention of the entire state.

The organization that Hunewell built was known as the “Military Band.” During most of his tenure as director, it ranged from twenty to thirty members in size. Only men played in the band, although women did perform in the stage orchestra, which Hunewell also directed. One of the band’s main functions was to support the campus ROTC unit. Every week, the band marched down Military Drive in uniform, playing stirring marches for the other cadets as they assembled for their weekly inspection ceremony. Individual band members also accompanied the raising and lowering of the flag and the entire band always provided music for special ROTC occasions and celebrations. The band and college orchestra also put on numerous concerts for the Tarleton community. In order to provided an attractive venue for these concerts, the graduating class of 1927 helped raise the money and built the Hunewell bandstand in the center of the campus. It remained a beloved campus landmark and favorite student meeting place until the college demolished it in 1963 to make room for the Tarleton Center.

rotcAn even more important function of the Military Band during the ‘20s and ‘30s was, in accordance with Dean Davis’ publicity strategy, to bring recognition and honor to Tarleton. Hunewell excelled in this area. He amazed observers with the speed in which he constructed an outstanding musical unit. Originally, the lack of musical instruments hindered his recruitment of band members. Students had to be able to provide their own instruments in order to participate in the band, thereby limiting his recruitment base to those with the financial means to meet this requirement. Somehow, Hunewell managed to work within this restriction during the 1920s. But the onset of the Great Depression in late 1929 accentuated the financial difficulties of many Tarleton students and jeopardized the future of the band. To resolve this potentially disastrous problem, Hunewell worked with the Department of Military Science to obtain a complete set of twenty-eight band instruments, including a desperately needed set of drums, from the United States War Department in 1932. This donation allowed Tarleton to provide instruments to band members and allowed students with talent to join the organization--regardless of financial situation.

Whenever possible, Tarleton provided Hunewell with the money he needed to take the band on tour throughout the state. Hunewell also forged a close relationship with the Stephenville Chamber of Commerce in order to supplement college funding and tour more often. He used this money to play in virtually every county in Texas. In addition, the band played a prominent role in the “Tarleton Day” celebration at the Texas State Fair in 1922 and in the 1924 live WBAP radio broadcast from the college gym. The band also performed at the inauguration of Governor Miriam A. Ferguson in 1933 and routinely served as the musical centerpiece at the annual conventions of the West Texas Chamber of Commerce.

No town was too small for Hunewell to visit, be it Cross Plains, Strawn, or anywhere else at least a few potential students lived. His band visited so many places in Texas that he had to develop a generic “fill in the blank” poster for advertising purposes. “Coming…The Tarleton Marching Band” filled the top of the poster, followed by a photo of the band and of the school. The bottom of the advertisement contained the following statement:

“The Tarleton Band Will Render A Free Concert on the Streets of Your City of________on_________Hour_____________. Public Cordially Invited.”

All Hunewell had to do was fill in the name of the town and the date/time of the concert and he was ready to put on another performance. Keeping the band’s publicity role always in mind, performances across the state always included a large sign which read “Tarleton College Band Stephenville. Come to Tarleton!”in bandstand

If Hunewell’s Military Band had toured the state putting on one mediocre performance after another, its benefit to Tarleton would have been negligible. Fortunately for the reputation of the school, Hunewell had no intention of ever giving a second-rate performance. Generation after generation of the Military Band won numerous awards and honors for their musical ability, marching precision, and espirit des corps. For example, in May 1926, the Tarleton Military Band competed against its counterparts from North Texas Agricultural College and other regional colleges at the annual “Boy’s Week” parade in Fort Worth. Tarleton band members easily captured first place in the competition and took a silk American flag back to Stephenville as their prize. Tarleton bands also won the San Antonio “Battle of the Flowers,” perhaps the most prestigious college band competition in Texas at the time, on several occasions during the 1920s and ‘30s.

In spite of his enormous success, Hunewell remained a quiet, unassuming individual who preferred to see his students succeed and his school prosper than achieve recognition for himself. He once defined a good band director as “[one]…who gets the best effort from those under him and who conducts in a quiet manner, attracting little attention from the audience.” He would adhere to this simple and refreshing philosophy, while at the same time producing prize-winning bands year after year until his retirement in 1942.

Before he retired, Hunewell had purchased a 1,200-acre ranch, about seven miles southeast of Stephenville. He moved to this rural property after retirement and devoted himself to raising registered Hereford cattle. He seldom referred to Stephenville or Tarleton. He would come to town only at “tax paying time” once a year or to stay at his old apartment in the Hall Hotel. He would receive old friends, colleagues, and students for a few days and then return to his ranch for another year, Neighbors found him dead from pneumonia at this ranch on the morning of December 19, 1959. He was eighty-three years old.

Hunewell left his ranch to Tarleton in his will. According to the provisions of the document (which was probated in early 1960), the school would rent the land out and use the proceeds to fund $200 scholarships for ten band students per year and purchase instruments, uniforms, and other equipment needed by the band. Tarleton leased the property to private individuals for five years and used the revenue as Hunewell had intended. In 1965 the music and agriculture departments at Tarleton worked out an agreement whereupon the latter department would use the property for its range management classes in exchange for an annual payment to the Band Fund. This arrangement, with several modifications in the number and amounts of the band scholarships to compensate for inflation, remains intact today. Dennis G. Hunewell, through his gift of Hunewell Ranch and his insistence on excellence from his students, continues to have an important influence on Tarleton long after his death.

Guthrie, Christopher. John Tarleton and his Legacy: The History of Tarleton State University, 1899-1999. Acton, MA: Tapestry Press, 1999. pp. 382-385.