Band leader and teacher John David Steelman’s death on Feb. 11 at age 89 prompted an outpouring of tributes from former students and band members.
Steelman, of Accomac, taught music for 60 years, including in Orange County (Virginia), Portsmouth, Va., and on the Eastern Shore.
He taught in Accomack County schools for 35 of those years — and after retiring in 1992, he returned several times as a substitute teacher.
Steelman also led a community band under the auspices of the county Parks and Recreation Department, which performed at events on the Shore and beyond.
“Mr. Steelman was a teacher, a friend, a mentor of many facets of my life and most of all a lover of music. I loved him dearly,” wrote Paul J. Parks in a social media post.
The Accomack County Recreational Band — which included a marching flag corps with flags from all 50 states, along with the musicians — performed at the Oyster Bowl, the Azalea Festival, parades, and other events.
The flag corps also performed at a Bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia.
The band finished second to Virginia Tech one year in the Oyster Bowl parade, and came in first the next year, according to a 2000 article by Ted Shockley.
Steelman “played the trumpet like few others, but he played many instruments and it always amazed me to see him move to the saxophone section and show by example the correct way to play a certain piece. He was a true multi-instrumentalist,” Parks wrote.
Parks went on to say, “Watching his reaction to the band really getting into a great groove while playing the music from the musical “The Wiz”… He would smile from ear to ear, close his eyes and react with sheer joy!
“He would get mad if you didn’t learn and practice your part, but would immediately give you fatherly encouragement to do better. Because, if you play better, we all play better.
“When he would conduct the band, the entire band was his focus, but he knew every part for every instrument and watching him move us in and out of the song was always a joy.”
Music was integral to Steelman’s life.
The motto inscribed under his portrait in the 1948 Northampton High School yearbook reads: “Life without music is a mistake.”
The same words are inscribed on his tombstone in Cape Charles.
Ironically, Steelman did not have the opportunity to take band as a student — his introduction to the field came later.
Steelman attended Virginia Tech, but signed up for the Coast Guard as the United States became involved in the Korean War.
During his time in the service, he met a friend who played saxophone, and Steelman taught himself how to play in his spare time.
After his stint in the Coast Guard, Steelman returned to college at James Madison University, where he majored in music education, paving the way for a career that influenced many Eastern Shore youngsters.
Rob Robertson is among those who credit Steelman with inspiring him to pursue a career in music.
“When Mr. Steelman was organizing the marching band at Broadwater Academy in the early 70’s, I wanted to join, but only played piano at the time, and had just been playing a few years…I asked him about joining and he said all that was left that they needed was a tuba player! Well I said I’d try it, but of course I didn’t have a tuba… don’t you know he went and procured one somewhere, and brought it in for me! Turns out it was too big … or I was too small and not enough wind (haha!), and it didn’t work out, but he really went above and beyond to try and help me get started!” he wrote in a social media post.
Robertson after moving to Delaware went on to pick up the guitar.
“I have performed locally and nationally, and I am currently employed at PRS guitars in Stevensville, MD, where we build high-quality guitars that are sold world wide. By that one act of kindness and caring, Mr. Steelman was instrumental…in fanning the flame of my love of music through his unwavering passion for not only the music itself, but for showing by example that a career in music, like most other worthwhile pursuits in life, requires passion, hard work, dedication, a little luck, and most importantly, the giving back of knowledge, experience, and encouragement to others who are interested in learning,” he wrote.
Brian Morton, in his 17th year as band director at Parkview High School in Sterling, also credited Steelman with his love of music.
“I was fortunate to have Mr. David Steelman as my beginning band director at North Accomack Elementary School, as well as my director, at times, at Parksley Middle and Arcadia High School,” Morton wrote, adding, “I remember Mr. Steelman walking in with his briefcase that (held) his trumpet, reeds, valve oil, and about anything you could think of for band class.
“I remember how passionate he was about teaching us music and how much he would do to make sure we would have the instruments to play. He would go to pawnshops and auctions and use his own money to make sure we had instruments. My fondest memories were when he would play recordings of great musicians such as Benny Goodman.
“Mr. Steelman motivated me to love playing clarinet and encouraged me to continue to play. I am now in my 17th year as a band director and Mr. Steelman played a large role in instilling my love for music and teaching.”
Norma Jane Judge wrote, “An amazing man! I marched in many Christmas parades and the Oyster Bowl parade. Thank you, Mr. Steelman, for the music! You can now be the bandleader in heaven!”
“I have many memories with Mr. Steelman at Parksley Middle. He was one of a kind and so passionate about music. I made first chair All Shore under his direction,” said Robert Lynn Studebaker, adding, “Everytime I hear ‘Jeremiah was a Bullfrog,’ I instantly think of him.”
Patrick Belote, who had Steelman as a teacher for six years, said he has too many memories to list.
“Many Azalea Festivals and Oyster Bowls come to mind…Lots of fond memories,” he wrote.
Until Steelman started teaching band, “we students in Accomack had not had an opportunity to learn music or instruments unless you took piano,” wrote Brenda Payne.
“He opened up a whole new world and shared his love of music with all of us. It was by far our favorite class and we couldn’t believe what we were able to accomplish. From marching band and halftime shows to the Oyster Bowl Parade and more. Concerts with school and All Shore Band. We are all better people due to his love of music and us kids,” she wrote.
Payne also was a neighbor of the Steelmans.
“We were also blessed to have him as a neighbor and friend and you couldn’t ask for better than the Steelman family. What a wonderful time to grow up on Drummondtown Road in Accomac. Both Jean and David have given so much to our communities and children,” she wrote.
Jodi Castronova Bridges, who had Steelman as a teacher at Onancock High School, described him simply as “awesome,” and Janice Justice Kellam called him “a gentleman through and through.”
A funeral service will be held Saturday, Feb. 22, at 11 a.m. at Market Street United Methodist Church in Onancock.
Memorial donations may be made to the Accomack Community Band, P.O. Box 135, Accomac, VA 23301, or Market Street United Methodist Church, 75 Market Street, Onancock, VA 23417.
Arrangements are by Williams-Onancock Funeral Home.