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Retired band director Shank dies at 95
Retired principal and band director Ralph Shank is shown in 2009. He died Tuesday at age 95. (Bulletin file photo)
Thursday, May 2, 2013
By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer
Former Martinsville High School band director and principal Ralph Shank is being remembered as a leader in the community and a positive influence on education in Martinsville.
Shank died Tuesday at Kings Grant retirement community. He was 95.
“He was a giant in the field of music and the field of education,” said Bob McMillan, who succeeded Shank as MHS band director in 1969. “(Shank was) probably one of the men I admire most in my lifetime.”
Current MHS band director Kevin Lewis said Wednesday that the school has had only three music directors since Shank began the program in 1947, and he credited Shank with being a constant source of encouragement and support. “You always knew you had a friend in him,” he said.
Shank was born in Buchanan on Oct. 7, 1917, and graduated from Buchanan High School in 1935. He enrolled in the University of Illinois band program “because they had the best band program in the country and I was interested in playing in it,” he said in a 1979 Martinsville Bulletin Piedmont Profile.
After receiving his degree in music instruction from Illinois, he went to work as director of instrumental music at Jefferson High School in Roanoke until February 1941, when he joined the Army.
Shank was an “amazing musician and a fine band director,” Lewis said. “Part of that comes from his time in the military,” where he sometimes would give trombone players weekend leave for memorizing their parts, he added.
Though he was classified as an infantryman, he was declared a bandsman and served in the 116th Infantry, 29th Division Army Band, for the next five years, directing the band in performances designed to improve relations between U.S. and British forces in England, according to previous Bulletin reports.
Following the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Shank directed the Army band that marched into Berlin after its fall. He held the rank of staff sergeant and warrant officer before his discharge. He later earned a degree from Columbia University.
He returned to the Roanoke School System after the war, teaching at 10 different schools in the division before spending a year in medical school until Martinsville School Superintendent Lester Carper offered him the opportunity to start an instrumental music program in the Martinsville School Division.
“We started in the summer of 1947,” Shank said in 1979, “and it was difficult to get enough interested people together, but we finally did get about 25 to 30 students to play for the first football game that fall.” The Martinsville Exchange club raised $3,000 to pay for the first set of instruments, Shank noted, beginning a relationship between Shank and the club that lasted for 60 years.
Lewis credited Shank with beginning “the overall standard of quality” at MHS. “He was the first to garner recognition for the program and we’ve done our best to continue that,” he added.
Shank spent 21 years as band director, with Martinsville routinely winning state awards. He left the band to become principal of Druid Hills Elementary and later Martinsville High School, a post he held for five years before returning to Druid Hills as principal until he retired in 1979. He also served as president of the Virginia Band Directors Association and as choir director at First Presbyterian Church in Martinsville for many years.
McMillan came to Martinsville in 1965 as Shank’s assistant and succeeded him when he moved into the schools’ administration. “Part of the reason I came here was him,” because “he had such a wonderful reputation in the state” and the area, McMillan said.
However, McMillan added, filling Shank’s shoes wasn’t easy. “It was a very difficult act to follow. I was just a young guy out of school, and I had a lot to learn. I’d ask him for advice on something, and he’d suggest 3-4 different ways to do it, and all of them were better than what I’d been thinking about doing,” he said.
McMillan, who ran the band program for 35 years, said Shank was a constant help to him.
“I’d got to him with problems, and he was always open and ready to advise. When he came to the high school as principal and I was working for him ... that was a new added pressure. He set a really high standard for me to reach,” McMillan said.
“He was always so active. He reminds me of a renaissance man type of person,” said McMillan, who said in later years he would meet Shank for breakfast once a week until Shank’s health began to fail last fall. “He got along so well with so many people. I don’t know anyone who didn’t like him as a band director or principal.”