O’dell Willis

Copyright (2002) * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(865) 687-1948

Fountain Citians Who Made A Difference


O’dell Willis


Some of the myths common to high school students are these: "If you are muscular, weigh 200 pounds and like contact sports, you play football; if you are fast, 6’ 2" or taller and possess jumping skills, you play basketball; if you are have perfect pitch and good manual dexterity, you play in the band and orchestra; and, if you are tone deaf, 5’ 6" and passed freshman English with a B or better average, you become editor of the school paper, and write essays or, if you are lucky, write books." We all remember how various classmates exploded those myths. Motivation and good teaching or coaching can often overcome physical limitations or natural aptitude.

Many who were members of a Central High School band and orchestra program will attest that beyond those myths there is a truism: Playing in the band or orchestra teaches teamwork and interpersonal skills--skills equal to or superior to those learned through team sports or other group activities. Band and orchestra directors make a difference in the lives of high school students and those students make a difference in their communities.

On January 3, 1905, O’dell Willis was born in Morgantown, Kentucky (north of Bowling Green). His father was C.V. Willis, later a successful attorney in Harlan, Kentucky. O’dell received his bachelors degree at the University of Kentucky and later earned a master's at the University of Tennessee. From 1930 to 1937, he was band director at Harlan High School, Harlan, Kentucky, where he met and married Hazel Bowling. They were the parents of one son who died tragically of a food allergy when he was very young (1, 2).

As a young musician at the beginning of the Great Depression in 1926, O’dell Willis was the piano player for Bud Rice’s "Kentucky Nighthawks." While on tour, he played for a dance in the ballroom of the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida, as he would remember years later on his return to the hotel in Clearwater for a memorable occasion. In 1930, the band broke up when the Depression worsened and he returned to Harlan to be the high school band director (2).

Mr. Willis succeeded M.J. Morrison as Band Director at Central High School, Knoxville, Tennessee for the 1938-39 school year. There were 38 members of the band that year, but by 1945 membership had increased to 100. If one considers the band recruitment process, the formidable task of assisting students in choosing their instrument and learning to play in concert; this is an extremely impressive feat.

Although the accomplishments of a high school band cannot be measured by the number of musicians in the band, the rate of growth is indicative of the positive results of the program and the enthusiasm engendered in the community. A dedicated band director can influence the discipline and character of students and can assist them in learning the teamwork vital to any career. Hundreds of Mr. Willis’ students credit him not only for their musical development, but also for developing leadership skills as valuable as any they acquired later in life (3).

Several of Mr. Willis’ band members chose careers in music education as a result of his impact on their lives. Among them are V.C. Adcock (CHS 1943), who directed the Young and Doyle bands; Colbert Petree (CHS 1949, drum major in 1948-49), band director at Powell and Northwest Junior High School; Dr. Eugene Collins (CHS 1953), band director at Norris and director of the Knoxville City Recreation Band; Jack Thomas (CHS 1953), director at Norris (1956-62), Fulton (1962-68), Karns (1968-90), Carter Middle (1990-92) and Northwest (1993-98); Larry Danner (CHS 19__), director at Farragut Midddle; John Wooten (CHS 19__), band director at Carter; David Wallace (CHS 1963), director at Powell Middle and Powell High and David Correll (CHS 1964), who directed bands at Halls Middle School for ten years and then at Carter Middle School, where he was selected "Teacher of the Year" for 2001-2002.

When Mr. Correll was awarded "Teacher of the Year for 2001-02," he credited his mentor, Mr. O’dell Willis, who greatly influenced his choice of career and stated, "(My highest award) as a teacher is to see the look of pride and accomplishment on a (student’s) face when they have achieved a goal." Those who knew Mr. Willis remember how he too was pleased with individual and collective accomplishment (4).

In July, 1954, 101 members of the Central High School band were chosen to go to New York City for the band competition at the Lions International Convention. Central High won fourth place among the 65-bands from all over the nation and an award of $300. On contest day, the band was near the end of the lineup and stood for three hours in a driving rain before their march down Fifth Avenue began. During the trip, they saw the sights of New York. They stopped in Washington on the return trip. Senator Albert Gore, Sr. arranged for a tour of the Capitol Building and they visited the Senate that was in session at the time (5).

Insert Parade Photo

In 1957 Central High School honored Mr. Willis at "O’dell Willis Night" during which the Band Boosters presented him with a new station wagon. When he retired in 1971, "O’dell Willis Week" was celebrated in Fountain City, jointly sponsored by the Band Boosters and the Parent-Teachers Association. The week began with a Choral Concert on Friday, May 7, followed by a Benefit Card Party on Saturday, May 15 and a Bingo Party on Monday, May 17. The Band Parade proceeded from the Broadway Shopping Center to the C.H.S. Pruden Field on Friday, May 21, where a Presentation Ceremony was held at which the Band Boosters presented Mr. Willis an electronic organ for his retirement home. This was followed by a Band Dance later that night. The week culminated on Saturday, May 22 with a Pancake Breakfast at the Lions Club Building and a Dinner Dance at Beaverbrook Country Club. The week was one of the most exciting in Central High School’s long history (6).

Already having served as president of the East Tennessee School Band and Orchestra Association (1942-46, 1949-51), Mr. Willis was elected the president of the Tennessee Music Educators Association in March 1962 and served from 1962 to 1964. He was selected honorary life president in 1971 (7).

Upon retirement O’dell and Hazel Willis moved to Clearwater, Florida to find relief for her severe pollen allergy. They were still very active and the couple participated in ballroom and square dancing groups and he was captain of the shuffleboard team and taught square dancing. In March, 1977, the 134-piece Central High School Band, then under the direction of his successor, Norman Woodall, was invited to the prestigious Sun and Fun Festival in Clearwater as a reward for winning the University of Tennessee Marching Band Contest the previous year. Mr. Woodall arranged for Mr. Willis to conduct the band again there—a fitting honor for the revered bandmaster (8).

He and his wife, Hazel Bowling Willis, made their home at 4306 Barbara Avenue until they moved to Jacksboro Arms upon his retirement. They attended Saint Paul Methodist Church.

On November 5, 1984, O’dell Willis passed away in Clearwater, Florida. He is buried there in the Sylvan Abbey Cemetery. Early in his career, after seven years of outstanding work, he received the American School Band Directors Association award. Mr. Willis was a member of the Tennessee Music Education Association, the East Tennessee Band Directors Association, the American Band Association, the Tennessee Bandmasters Hall of Fame at Memphis State University and two honorary fraternities, Phi Beta Mu for national band directors and Phi Kappa Delta for education (9,10).

In a fitting tribute to his colleague, University of Tennessee band director Dr. W.J. Julian, said, "He was truly one of the outstanding leaders and music educators in Tennessee. And, of course, he was truly an outstanding band director—one of the best Tennessee has ever had." O’dell Willis set an example for his students in citizenship, character, responsibility and integrity and made a difference for them and for many others with whom he came in contact in Fountain City and beyond. 

d-willis2.doc (7/4/02, 8/28/02, 10/28/02, 4/22/06, 6/10/06).


1.  Willis Biography (Vertical File), McClung Historical Collection, Knoxville, Tennessee; "C.H.S. Band" (Vertical File), Heritage Room, Central High School, Knoxville, Tennessee; Personal Conversation with V.C. Adcock, April 30, 2002.

2. Personal Conversation with Charles P. Sanders, April 30, 2002.  A close friend and fellow faculty member, Mr. Sanders was Choral Director at Central High School for many of the years that Mr. Willis directed the band and orchestra.

3.  "C.H.S. Band" (Vertical File) prepared by Bob Cannon, Ronald Davis and Donald Keith for Nannie Lee Hicks American History Class, 1958-1959, Heritage Room, Central High School, Knoxville, Tennessee. The band grew dramatically after Mr. Willis appointment: 1938, 38 members; 1939, 41; 1940, 65; 1941, 87; 1942, 72; 1943, 66; 1944, 60; 1945, 100.

4.  "David Correll named ‘Teacher of Year,’" Halls Shopper-News, March 18, 2002.

5.  "CHS Band, Fourth-Place Parade Winner, Due Back," Knoxville News-Sentinel, July 11, 1954; "Central Band Garners 4th Place in New York," Knoxville Journal, July 10, 1954.

6.  The Central High School Hitching Post, Vol. 2, No. 7, May 7, 1971.

7.  "O’dell Willis Heads State Music Group," Knoxville Journal, March 9, 1962.

8.  David Smith, "Tennessee is sending Fun ‘n Sun Festival a musical gift—loaded into four buses," St. Petersburg Times, March 24, 1977; "Knoxville band to get warm welcome," Pinellas Times, 1977.

9.  Jack Lail, "Odell Willis, band director at Central for 34 years, dies," Knoxville News-Sentinel, November 7, 1984.

10.  Personal Conversation with Mr. Norman Woodall on April 30, 2002. Mr. Woodall succeeded Mr. Willis as CHS band director in 1971 and retired in 1999. He passed away unexpectedly on August 20, 2002. S.L. Valentine, supervisor of band and choral music for Knox County Schools commented on Mr. Woodall’s career at his memorial service in these words, "Norman Woodall was an icon of professionalism and commitment to his students who will be remembered as a true gentleman and scholar. The Central High School band is nationally recognized because of its legendary directors, O’dell Willis and Normal Woodall. Both were there about 30 years. Mr. Woodall continued and further developed the strong band tradition he inherited from Mr. Willis. … Norman truly cared for his students. He loved the band and was an active lifetime learner." Sandra Clark, Halls Shopper News, August 26, 2002.

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