VAN BOB RAGSDALE
Van Bob Ragsdale is the luckiest person alive. Born in the Texas panhandle town of Pampa in 1946 to Audie and Robert B. Ragsdale, he was named after his grandfather, Levander, so he’s lucky his parents only gave him the “Van” part. Although neither of his parents were musicians, he began playing the trombone at the age of nine, as he knew the slide could be a great weapon if he ever needed it to push an enemy over a cliff in hand-to-hand combat. He learned to march in 4th grade beginning band to the 6/8 cadence: “I left..I left..I left my wife with seven kids…I left..I left…”
Van’s luck continued when he advanced to the Robert E. Lee Junior High School band directed by Joe DiCosimo. Graduating from Pampa High School in 1964, he won many individual and group awards in the Harvester Band under the direction of Bill Tregoe and Fred Stockdale. As a senior, he learned a valuable lesson the last night of a band trip to Enid, Oklahoma, when the assistant principal opened the door to a very raucous motel room that Van and seven roommates were staying in and said, “Boys, there’s a very thin line between bravery and stupidity…and you’re about to step over it.”
Van chose to attend Eastern New Mexico University in Portales over West Texas State in Canyon because he wanted some distance from a high school girlfriend who wanted to marry him. His good friend and mentor, Gary Garner, later told him, “I’ve had lots of students attend WTSU to be with a girlfriend, but you’re the only one who didn’t attend, to get away from one!” This was also lucky for Van, as he met an All-State vocalist named Jean Parker at ENMU. Van soon knew that he would have to marry Jean…as she stood him up on their first date. He also had three great mentors there: Floren Thompson, Jr. (band), Harold Popp (trombone), and Doreen Grimes (composition).
Van’s luck continued when he student taught at nearby Clovis High School with Norvil Howell, who had built one of the finest band programs in the nation. He chose Van, right out of college in 1968, to open the new Yucca Junior High in Clovis. The band started with twenty-nine members but grew to over 100 by its third year, playing seven movements of Carmina Burana at contest. The band also earned the Best in Class awards in both marching and concert at the Greater Southwest Music Festival in Amarillo in 1971. Amazingly, even junior high school students could march in those days!
Luckily, in August of 1971, Van was at home when Odessa Music Coordinator Robert L. Maddox called to ask if he would be interested in the John B. Hood Junior High School job in Odessa. Having grown up in Texas, Van yearned to be a Texas band director, so he bade farewell to his wonderful students at Yucca. He also wanted to learn from the legendary J.R. McEntyre. The Hood band went on to earn numerous marching and concert band awards while Van was director, including 3C Honor Band in 1973. Because Odessa would not allow junior high school students to travel overnight, the band could not play its Honor Concert at TMEA, so Van took a cassette recording of the band warming up for anyone to hear at the convention. Many of his Hood band members did get to play in an Honor Concert, however, as they were members of good friend Charles Nail’s Permian High School Honor Band in 1975.
While in Odessa, Van met Tommy Fry, who was always available to listen to recordings and give advice. Van also spent many hours discussing band with his close friend, Ed Handley. Ed tells the story that he would often leave his band hall at Nimitz Junior High after sectionals and drive by the Hood band hall on his way home. If he saw Van’s car still there, he would turn around, drive back to Nimitz and find something else to do. What Ed didn’t know was that Van realized this and would have Jean pick him up and he would leave his car there for Ed to see. It was also during this time that Van was first awarded the National Band Association’s Citation of Excellence and was listed in The World’s Who’s Who of Musicians. Most importantly, Van and Jean’s daughter and future All-State oboist, Vicki, was born in Odessa.
Van’s first high school band was in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Luckily for him, Harold Van Winkle was leaving there for the University of New Mexico, and he thought Van was the right person for the job…no doubt because his name was Van. This did present a problem for the Alamogordo band students, however, as they called Harold Van Winkle “Mr. Van.” They weren’t sure what to call this new Van, but the band continued its successes by winning the Mountain States Music Festival in Phoenix in 1976. The students thought so much of the new Van that they petitioned the City Council to have March 30, 1976, declared “Van Ragsdale Day” in Alamogordo. Van was especially lucky in getting to work with John Walker and Ken Valliant.
But once again, Van missed Texas, and Midland’s Robert E. Lee High School was open. Luckily, music coordinator Bill Cormack and the school’s principal both wanted to hire Van. The district Director of Personnel did not…he only wanted to hire Jean. He saw Van as “another J.R. McEntyre or Ike Nail,” to which Van’s retort in his interview was, “Thank you for the compliment!”
It wasn’t long before Van established himself as the Lee director, as the band continued its UIL Sweepstakes tradition. Upholding the band’s motto, “Nothing We Have Done in the Past Will Ever Be Good Enough Again,” the Lee band was selected 4A (5A now) Honor Band for 1979. In 1978 Van was inducted into Phi Beta Mu, sponsored by Dan Gibbs. Dan’s sponsor had been G.T. Gilligan, who was sponsored by Col. Earl D. Irons, so Van is the great grandson of the Phi Beta Mu Founder. While at Lee, Van was awarded the National Band Association’s Citation of Excellence again. Working with Bruce Collins, Dan Green, Randy Storie, Clyde Wilson and many others were highlights of Van’s years in Midland. Most importantly, Van and Jean’s son and future All-State percussionist, Jim, was born there. Many years later, when Jim was teaching percussion in Midland and Van was conducting the Midland All-City Band, an All-City Band member was heard to say: “That’s not Mr. Ragsdale…he’s young, cute and plays percussion.” The torch had been passed without Van even knowing it! Now, if you’ve been counting, you’ve noticed that three of the four Ragsdale musicians gained membership in an All-State organization. Van was the only one who didn’t.
In April of 1980, Klein ISD Director of Music, Bob Blanton called Van about an opening at Klein High School. Although he wasn’t interested in leaving Lee, Van agreed to fly to Houston and talk with Bob and the high school principal. As they drove around the school district, Van would hang his head out Bob’s car window and exclaim: “Dang, Bob, those trees reach all the way to the sky!” Van was lucky again when his family embraced the idea of moving to a completely different part of the state, so he turned the Lee band over to the capable hands of Randy Storie.
During Van’s second year at Klein, the marching band placed 3rd in the State Marching Contest. At the end of that year, Bob Blanton was appointed Director of Bands at TCU, and Van took over as Director of Music for Klein ISD. Bob’s parting words to Van were: “I’ll give you two years”...but Van showed him…he lasted three. Some highlights of Van’s years in Klein include working with Robert Hastings, Paul Worosello, Babs Streit, and hiring Randy Vaughn.
Van realized after three years that he was not cut out for administration and was lucky that Richard Floyd had given his name to the superintendent at Westlake High School in Austin for an opening there. With Van at the head and Andy Davidson his assistant, the Westlake band continued its string of UIL Sweepstakes and other national awards. The band also traveled extensively, at which Andy was a master planner. While on a trip to Florida, some parent sponsors alerted Van to a rowdy room of senior boys on the last night of the trip (déjà vu!) Van tore four matches from a matchbook, walked to the boys’ room and had each one choose a match. He then told the one with the shortest match, “Get dressed and come with me.” That was all that was said. The other three boys had no idea what happened to the fourth, but the room immediately got quiet. During this time Van also served as both Texas and Southwestern Division Chair of the National Band Association and gave presentations at two CBDNA conventions.
J.R. McEntyre retired as Odessa Director of Fine Arts in 1989, and Charles Nail moved into that position, creating an opening at Permian High School. Luckily, Van’s name had not been forgotten, and with the encouragement of Jean, the Ragsdales moved back to Odessa. This was during the “Friday Night Lights” era, and Van’s first year at Permian included eighteen half-time performances and an ESPN National football championship. The marching band also placed 6th in the State Marching Contest, a feat it would repeat three consecutive years. During this time Van served as president of Phi Beta Mu’s Alpha Chapter. In 1995, he, Keith Bearden and Durward Howard formulated the Phi Beta Mu Reading Band… literally in Durward’s hotel room before the fraternity’s Thursday night meeting, where it was first presented to the membership. Van remembers it being Keith’s idea, but Van luckily got to take credit for it, as he was president.
While at Permian, Van was lucky to be able to work with other outstanding directors, including Mike Watts, John Carroll, Rusty Gray, Pano Mata, and his first Odessa hire, Cindy Bulloch. Cindy proved to be Van’s “right hand man,” and they continued to work closely together at Nimitz Junior High after Van got tired of living thirteen months each year with the Permian marching band. The Cindy-Van Team has gone on to develop a series of band director workshops and in-services that have been well received in school districts throughout the Southwest as well as at TMEA and The Midwest Clinic. It was also during this time that Van composed A Walk with McCarley, in recognition of the Nimitz band’s Sudler Cup award and in memory of Cindy’s late principal, Robert McCarley. Van also began composing and arranging for Carl Fischer Music Company and Southern Music Company.
After eleven years in Odessa, Van and Jean decided to move back to a more populated area of the state, when Van was hired as Director of Fine Arts for Arlington ISD. Bob Copeland had done this job superbly for several years, but soon it was clear to Van that administration was still not for him. The highlight was working with many talented directors and teachers in Arlington and also conducting the South Carolina All-State Band in 2001. After thirty-two years in music education and one year in Arlington, Van decided to retire...sort of. He began work with Express Industries as fundraising manager for the southeast Dallas area. Luckily for him, Van’s bosses have allowed him to also do as many band clinics and workshops as he wants. Also during this time he served as international vice-president and president of Phi Beta Mu.
Since 2002 Van and Jean have lived in Garland, where Van’s luck continues. In 2003, his original Reflections on a Theme by Clifton Williams and arrangement of The Carnival of Venice were premiered at TMEA by Marci Zoffuto and the Coyle Middle School band. During this time Van also served as a founder and the first president of the Eastern New Mexico University Alumni Band. Under his leadership, the band raised over $50,000 to name a new band hall after former Bandmaster, Floren Thompson, Jr. Since 1988, Van has also used his fundraising skills to help generate over $50,000 in donations to the Floren Thompson Band Scholarship Fund. At ENMU’s Homecoming in 2008, Van was presented the Distinguished Alumni Service Award for his contributions to the university. Since 2004 he has served on the Board of Directors for the Peak Music Festivals and helps administer the festivals.
In 2002, under the mentorship of Mesquite ISD Director of Fine Arts, John Kline, Van took up magic. He is a member of the Dallas Magic Club, the Society of American Magicians, and does numerous magic shows yearly for students in the Dallas area. Also, at the request of Phil Clements, Director of Bands at Texas A&M University, Commerce, Van has served as Instrumental Music Student Teacher Supervisor since 2010. In 2012, he was appointed adjunct professor for TAMU, Commerce and teaches the “Instrumental Organization” class, a.k.a. “How to Be a Band Director.” In 2011, the Mesquite Symphonic Community Band and its director Dale Coates honored him with a concert titled ”The Music of Van Ragsdale” and inducted him as an honorary member for his contributions to band literature and leadership. Van is a member of ASCAP and plans to continue to compose, arrange, teach, and work with young people, musically and magically. He also plays trombone with the Psalm 150 Brass Choir at First United Methodist in Rowlett and is the proud owner of a bright red P-Bone that Jean gave him in March for their 45th wedding anniversary.
Van is grateful to Phi Beta Mu, TBA and TMEA for this wonderful honor. The people who deserve this recognition the most, however, are the students that he has taught over the years. Far too numerous to name individually, they are truly the ones who earned this award. Along with marrying Jean, having two talented children and future All-State granddaughter, Avery, the opportunity to teach thousands of marvelous students was Van’s greatest luck of all.