Leader of the Bands

By Sara Spain


Dale Shaffner and Rossville High School’s Blue and White Bulldog Band (1950s)


Dale Shaffner, one of the most respected and successful band directors, forever shaped the regional high school band landscape. “From a historical perspective, I would consider Mr. Shaffner the patriarch of high school bands as we know it today,” says Tracy Wright, current Ringgold High School Band Director and friend.

Shaffner’s 35-year career began at Soddy Daisy, where he served as band director for three years. In 1952, he accepted the position at Rossville High School, where he made his mark and would serve for 32 years. From the outset, Shaffner quickly earned the respect of area band directors. After just three years at Rossville, the band nearly doubled in size and became one of Georgia’s most prolific and highest performing band programs.

During Shaffner’s tenure at Rossville, he took his bands to over 100 marching and concert competitions – at a time when competitions were not a normal occurrence in a band’s season. He both amazed and frustrated his fellow band directors when Rossville would beat much larger bands in both marching and concert competitions.

In 1954, the Rossville band compiled 99.4 points out of 100 at the Southeastern Band Festival and was named a leading marching band in the Southeast. The same year, the Rossville Bulldog football team won its first state championship under the guidance of Coach Glen Wade.

Among the best performing regional bands, the Blue and White Bulldog band performed throughout the southeast.

With Shaffner at the helm, Rossville received second place ratings only twice. In every other concert and marching competition, the Rossville High School band earned the highest superior rating. Former majorette Pat Snowden remembers,
“He took us to a level higher than all of the other local bands that we competed against. It was a step above what everybody else was expected to do. Our music and routines were harder than other bands.”

For one state competition, he chose a piece of music that seemed too difficult for even his best students. His son, Richard, remembers how challenging the piece was. “We were practicing it, and we couldn’t get two measures without messing up.” Richard remembers his father explaining that no other band at the competition would play a piece of music anywhere near as difficult; that it would be too challenging for anyone else. “At the contest, everyone knew that we were going to play this song. They were there to watch us mess up. We played it – and got a standing ovation. Dad challenged you. All you had to do was take the time, and he taught you how to do it. He was challenging, but that was one of the best things about him.”

“He took us to a level higher than all of the other local bands that we competed against. It was a step above what everybody else was expected to do. Our music and routines were harder than other bands.”

– Pat Snowden

Shaffner is remembered as a strict director, though always with a sense of humor. Coach Lynn Murdock, head football coach at Rossville from 1964-1984, explains, “He was fairly strict with his band members, but they loved him.” Snowden recalls, “It was often like a military situation. We respected him and were very disciplined by him, but he had a lighter side, too.” Shaffner participated in shaving cream fights at band camps and told jokes at practice, but one favorite story from former students involves a wager with rival City High School’s band director – the winning football team’s band director would present the loser with a bouquet of flowers at the 50-yard line after the game. Much to the delight of Rossville fans, Shaffner gifted the “Loser’s Bouquet” to A.R. Casavant, City’s band director.

With all of the success of Shaffner’s bands, he attracted attention from larger bands and orchestras across the United States and around the world.  He received job offers from numerous organizations, including one from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. When the Rossville community heard about the job offers, they urged Shaffner not to take them. Richard recalls, “They loved him so much at Rossville that he never even thought about leaving his band.”

The list of Dale Shaffner’s accolades, distinctions, and accomplishments could fill a book all on their own. In culmination of his career, Shaffner was inducted into the Georgia Bandmasters Hall of Fame in 2003. He was the 19th inductee and the first from North Georgia.

The backing that Shaffner received from other band leaders was not surprising given the support and guidance he routinely offered to band directors. Richard explained that other band directors often asked Dale to listen to their band and give advice. “He was very adamant about making sure all of the bands in the area were successful.” Danny Coggin, former band director at Bradley Central High School, agreed. “I met Mr. Shaffner in my early years as a band director. He was very knowledgeable and willing to share his teaching techniques and expertise. He was a person who wanted to help young directors become better in their craft so that the art of teaching music would be around forever.”

Wright remembers, “He was a caring yet demanding man. Most importantly, he wanted to see others succeed – all students and all programs, not just his own. Even after he retired, he came to many football games, just to hear the band play and watch them march. He would be very proud to see how far the bands have come in North Georgia.”

“He was a person who wanted to help young directors become better in their craft so that the art of teaching music would be around forever.”

– Danny Coggin

Shaffner dedicated his life to teaching and playing music. Over the course of his career, he taught hundreds of students, and interlaced through every note were lessons of respect, discipline, and determination. From beginners picking up instruments for the first time to experienced musicians playing the most difficult pieces, his support never wavered. “For anyone who wanted to play music, Dad stuck with them from start to finish,” notes Richard. “As long as they were trying hard, he worked with them until they reached their potential. That was just the way he was.”

Since his passing in 2014, Shaffner’s influence lives on through the students he taught and those he encountered. Coach Murdock reflected, “He was a great part of the Rossville High School tradition, and I believe he would like to be remembered as a friend to all who came his way.” His son Richard concludes, “Dad left a legacy of music. I was very fortunate to have him as my father. He simply gave everything he had to high school bands, Rossville High School, and the people of Rossville itself.”

Band Director Dale Shaffner and the Rossville Bulldogs at the Southeastern Band Festival.