Mark Norwood first met Burl Walter Jr. when both worked on the first season of Fresno’s Good Company Players in 1973. Norwood, who led Reedley’s River City Theatre company for more than 20 years, said it was his longtime friend and mentor who truly brought a vibrant fine arts community to Reedley.
“He was the Harold Hill – the Music Man – of Reedley,” Norwood said. “He showed people the magic of the arts, and he grew that passion in this community.”
Mr. Walter died while on vacation with family in Hawaii on Dec. 5. He was 83.
Mr. Walter is probably best known for molding the Reedley High School band from 55 young musicians to the award-winning, 400-plus “Big Green Marching Machine” during his tenure as director from 1965-2000. Norwood worked alongside him from 1993-2000 as the theater arts coordinator for Kings Canyon Unified School District.
Norwood remembers Mr. Walter as “a very larger-than-life individual” whose warm and positive personality sometimes gave way to a sort of gruff tenacity.
“He would always go to bat for his marching bands to have equal rights as the football team,” Norwood said. “He used to say ‘musicians are small-muscle athletes.’ ”
He continued: “Burl was a positive force for the arts – mostly centered around music, but he also loved the theater. He helped me through the politics of a Reedley that wasn’t ready to embrace the arts. He was on board with River City Theatre from Day One.”
Many of Mr. Walter’s students would go on to become professional musicians and lead bands across the country. Under his leadership, marching band membership became a point of pride for thousands of Reedley students. One of his first protégés was Tom Fritz, who joined the Reedley High band as a freshman in 1966. He would soon become Mr. Walter’s drum major and later teach orchestra alongside his former director.
“All of us learned to love music as much as he did,” Fritz said. “He’s left a void that won’t be filled. And maybe that’s how we remember people who are special. It’s because no one can fill that void.”
All of us learned to love music as much as he did. He’s left a void that won’t be filled. And maybe that’s how we remember people who are special. It’s because no one can fill that void.
Tom Fritz, remembering his teacher and colleague Burl Walter Jr.
Although he knew Mr. Walter for 50 years, Fritz always considered him his teacher. Most of the lessons he imparts on his students came from Mr. Walter, Fritz added, as did some lessons teachers don’t learn about in college.
“When a fight breaks out (among students), you want to walk there,” Fritz said with a slight chuckle. “Wait till other teachers get there first.”
Fritz remembers plenty of funny stories, too.
“When I was co-director with him of the (Reedley High) Pirate band, we were sitting in the bleachers. He saw a group in the wrong place on the field, so he shot up and ran down to the field. It was wet and as soon as he hit grass, he fell and slid many, many feet. When they realized he was OK, everybody burst out laughing. And he immediately yelled for everyone to run a lap, so they all had to run.”
Another story centers on Mr. Walter bringing a 17-year-old Fritz to fill in on tuba with the Tulare County Symphony. During rehearsal, a rather scary band director called a halt and told Mr. Walter, who was playing timpani, that he had missed his entrance.
“I was waiting for the tuba entry to cue me,” Fritz remembered his teacher saying. “And everyone looked at me. You can bet I never missed that tuba entry again.”
Gaylene Joe-Walter knew Mr. Walter in several ways – first when she was a student at Fresno State, then as a fellow musician in the Fresno Philharmonic, then as his wife. She shed some light on what brought him to Reedley.
He loved all music except country-western.
Gaylene Joe-Walter, on her husband Burl Walter Jr.
He was born in Kansas and went to college in the Midwest before joining the U.S. Army, where he was stationed in San Francisco. When he was discharged, he knew he wanted to come back to California, so he pursued the Reedley job.
“He wanted to be near both the mountains and ocean,” Joe-Walter said. “He loved nature and traveling – just the beauty of all things.”
Joe-Walter said the couple would often host scores of former students and other community members for a backyard party during the Reedley Fiesta every October. He never stopped bragging about his students, she added.
“He was a very good counselor,” she said. “He may not have the right answer, but he’d always have an answer. He was gruff, but it was a loving gruff.”
Despite failing health, his wife said, Mr. Walter continued to follow all of his passions. The family was on vacation when he died. He never stopped teaching or mentoring. He played in symphonies in three counties.
Fritz said his former teacher was scheduled to play percussion – from his wheelchair, with his wife’s help – in the Kings Symphony Orchestra’s performance this Sunday.
“You’ll probably see his name in the program,” Fritz said. “He was supposed to play with us, but instead there will be a remembrance for him.”
Fritz confessed it was still difficult to wrap his head around Mr. Walter’s sudden death.
“Mr. Music, Mr. Reedley – he was all those things and more,” Fritz said. “The younger community probably has no idea who he is, but the older generation does. His name was professor, uncle, Mr. Burl Leroy Walter Jr., sir. We called him that like he was a general.
“If people didn’t know his proper title, they didn’t know him well enough.”
Burl Leroy Walter Jr.
Born: Aug. 15, 1933
Died: Dec. 5, 2016
Occupation: Retired Reedley High School band director, teacher and Fresno State professor; musician
Survivors: Wife, Gaylene, and son, Burl Leroy Walter III
Services: Funeral arrangements are not yet finalized