Stillman alum returns to lead ‘Blue Pride’ Marching Band

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By WVUA 23 Digital Reporter Mason Smith

Long before Robert Baxter III became band director at Stillman College, he grew up in a small town about 20 minutes northwest of Dothan called Ozark.

Baxter picked up music early, beginning piano lessons at 6 years old, then violin at 8. He played for about four years until his family moved from Daleville to Ozark.

“They didn’t have a strings program, so I got in the band and started playing trombone,” Baxter said. “I played from sixth grade to about my sophomore year of high school.”

That was Baxter’s introduction to marching band. After his sophomore year, Baxter’s band director switched him to baritone and sousaphone.

When he graduated from Carroll High School, he got a scholarship for Stillman College. Even as a student, he had his hands in many aspects of the program.

“I played trombone my first two years, then played the baritone, soon becoming baritone section leader,” he said. “I was a student arranger, student director, just a leader in the band program.”

Baxter is also a member of Kappa Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity, a prestigious honor among musicians, especially those in the marching band world. The only position he did not hold was drum major.

“I don’t have that much coordination,” he said, chuckling. “Never aspired towards that.”

Baxter finished with a decorated career when he graduated from Stillman in 2017. Originally, his plan was to continue his studies overseas, but that changed after after talking with his mentor and good friend KD Gipson.

“I asked Gipson ‘Hey, do you know of any open director positions?’ and he asked me ‘Are you willing to move up north?’ I said sure,” Baxter explained. “I just graduated college, looking for a position, and I didn’t want to teach in Alabama.

“I had ambitions to study abroad. I got accepted to study in Vienna, Austria, and in Greece.” he said. “But I turned that down because I got the job in a suburb of Cleveland called Maple Heights.”

When Baxter got to Maple Heights High School in 2017, the band program only had about 13 students. Before the pandemic shut down everything in 2020, the band surpassed 110 members and earned a slew of marching band awards to complement the symphonic band’s success.

“Maple Heights was a blessing,” he said. “I will always look back on it and cherish those memories with the students, parents and administration, along with the lessons I learned there.”

While Baxter’s journey is one of consistent growth, his alma mater faced severe challenges over the past seven years.

Because of financial strain, Stillman cut its football team in 2015. Derrick Yates, who served as band director while Baxter was at Stillman, stepped down in 2017.

After Yates, Stillman’s band director position was a revolving door, with three directors in five years amid a schoolwide financial crisis.

Baxter gave a lot of credit to those who kept the program alive during the tempest.

“A lot of them really love this band,” Baxter said. “They’ve already been foundational in taking this band into a new era. I couldn’t be more proud, both as an alumnus and as a director.”

Now, after five years away from the program he called home, Baxter was officially hired as the new Director of Bands in January. As the 2022-23 school year approaches, Baxter hopes to create a new image for the “Blue Pride” Marching Band.

“I think that what we are going to be doing with the band program moving forward is going to be revolutionary,” Baxter said. “Not only for the college, but for the whole Tuscaloosa community.”

Baxter wants Stillman more engaged with the community, with “Blue Pride” serving as a bridge.

He wants to reestablish some band traditions that were lost in the turnover, from defining their marching style to singing the alma mater.

“We always sing the alma mater at the end of practice,” he said. “When I got here in January, students literally did not know the words. It was a little rough at first, but I taught them, which is just one of the traditions that we’ll bring back.”

Baxter understands that it takes time and patience to bring back what’s been lost, but he is looking forward to leading Stillman into a new era.

“I always had an ambition and dream to come back home,” Baxter said. “So I’m blessed that this early in my career I’m able to do that.”

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