Ann Shirley often joked that her father Neil never expected to live to an old age. Like his father before him, he expected to die by the time he turned 65, her mother often told her. Little did Neil know that in 2016 he would be celebrating his 100th birthday, with friends, family and the generations of Denison youth that followed him.

Ann Shirley often joked that her father Neil never expected to live to an old age. Like his father before him, he expected to die by the time he turned 65, her mother often told her. Little did Neil know that in 2016 he would be celebrating his 100th birthday, with friends, family and the generations of Denison youth that followed him.


Members of the Denison High School Ensemble Band gathered outside the home of Neil Shirley, the first full-time, paid band director at Denison High School. Instead of singing the former band director "Happy Birthday," the 30 students gathered together to play the school’s fight song for his birthday.


"This is all such a big surprised," Neil Shirley said, holding back laughter. "I thought they had really pulled one over on me."


Denison Independent School District Superintendent Henry Scott presented Neil Shirley with a proclamation from the city, proclaiming March 4, as Neil Shirley Day.


Shirley first came to Denison in 1938 after he graduated from the University of Oklahoma that year. He started work with the school district as a part-time band director and part-time math teacher before going into music full time the following year.


Ann Shirley said her father often talks about how small the band program was back then; the Ensemble Band that gather Friday likely outnumbered the entire program in Neil Shirley’s early years. Ann Shirley said her father also said the band wasn’t very good back when he arrived in Denison.


"It took me a while, but they came around real good," Neil Shirley said.


"He basically worked their tails off," Ann Shirley said. "He even had parents complaining he was working them too hard."


Neil Shirley worked at the school for two years before leaving in late 1941 following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. During World War II, Shirley served as a band director for three dance bands in the U.S. Army. During this time, he performed with and directed musicians including members of the Glenn Miller Band.


Following his military service, Shirley returned home to Denison and worked with his father-in-law, Walter Jennings, at his furniture store in the 500 block of Main St. Ann Shirley said her father didn’t go back to teaching music because he worried it wouldn’t pay enough for his now growing family. Shirley continued to work in the furniture business until he retired in 1984.


Still, Ann Shirley said her father has held a lifelong love of music and continues to play the drums, clarinet and other instruments with friends.


Current Denison High School Band Director Paul Onspaugh said he didn’t know about Shirley, or that he was still living locally, until his daughter approached the district a few weeks ago to set up the birthday celebration.


"For any one single man, to come in and put something like this together is amazing," Onspaugh said.