Don Wilson, Lexington’s music man, turns 90

Strike up the band: Lexington’s music man will be 90 years old Thursday.

Some people remember Don Wilson as the drum major of the University of Kentucky Marching Band. He and his oldest daughter, Donna, were the baton- twirling stars of the halftime show from 1949 to 1955.

But Wilson’s most enduring legacy might be the generations of children in Central and Eastern Kentucky who got the chance to play in a school band or orchestra because his store rented or sold them an instrument and kept it repaired.

“I’ve had a great life,” Wilson said last week as we sat in his office at Don Wilson Music Co. on Southland Drive and paged through a thick notebook of photos and newspaper clippings.

It all began when Wilson’s parents gave him a saxophone for his ninth birthday. By the time he was old enough to play in his high school band in St. Joseph, Mo., he had discovered another talent.

Wilson soon became the band’s drum major. He thought he was pretty good until he went to Kansas City and saw another drum major wow the crowd with baton twirling.

“I went home and taught myself to twirl a baton,” he said. “I wore the grass off my folks’ yard practicing.”

By the time Wilson graduated, he was the state champion drum major and baton twirler. He went on to perform with the band at what is now Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville.

Wilson spent World War II touring the South with an Army band, playing three parades a day and four dances a week. Each military band picked one member to be trained to repair everyone’s instruments. Wilson was chosen.

After the war, Wilson decided he could make more money fixing horns than playing them. So after further training, he and his wife, Mary, moved to Lexington, where her brother lived. Wilson became the repairman at Shackleton’s music store.

The director of UK’s marching Wildcats soon found out about Wilson’s baton-twirling past. He asked him to become the band’s drum major, even though Wilson wasn’t a student.

Wilson might have been the band’s oldest member, but he was always being upstaged by the youngest. By the time she was 7, Donna Wilson was wearing the grass off her folks’ yard. She became as good a twirler as her dad.

“She stole the show,” Wilson said. “I became known as the father of the little girl.”

The Wilsons accompanied Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s UK football team to the Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl. It was quite a run. Donna returned for an encore during her years as a UK student. She is now retired in Florida.

Wilson spent his free time for the next three decades performing with American Legion and Oleika Shrine bands. “Every vacation involved a parade,” daughter Peggy Wilson said. “Fort Lauderdale, Washington, D.C., and I don’t know how many he did in Chicago.”

After Don Wilson worked 10 years at Shackleton’s, the store decided to get out of the band-instrument business. So Wilson opened his own store with borrowed money and help from Mary, his wife of 64 years, who died in 2005.

Sales and repairs were important, but the key to Don Wilson Music Co.’s success was horn rentals. Instruments are expensive, and parents are hesitant to buy them until they are convinced their children will stick with band.

“He always rented good-quality instruments in good repair, which we needed to make our bands great,” said J. Larry Moore, director of the Lafayette High School Band from 1973 to 1980. “He and Mary supported us any way they could.”

Arthritis ended Wilson’s baton-twirling career long ago, but he comes to work at the store every day. Peggy Wilson runs the business with help from her brother, Gary, and several longtime employees. Another sister, Sally, lives in Georgetown.

“This is his baby,” Peggy said of the store that has played such an important role in Kentucky’s school band tradition. “We have kids come in all the time with a parent or grandparent who says, ‘I got my instrument here, too.'”

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