A teacher and an entertainer
Popular band leader Earl Irons credited with building University's music program
Music fills Irons Recital Hall daily as UTA student musicians practice and perform. The hall and the music are fitting memorials to Earl D. Irons, who literally was "The Music Man" at North Texas Agricultural College (now UTA) and throughout much of northeast Texas in the first half of the 20th century.
Irons grew up in Sulphur Springs and began studying violin at age 4. He soon added the cornet and snare drum to his repertoire and by age 10 was playing in a local band. At 15, he was elected director of the Sulphur Springs community band.
During World War I, Irons served in the U.S. Army Band. Afterwards, he returned to Sulphur Springs and again took up the conducting baton. Community bands were popular at the time, and over the next few years he also directed the Greenville American Legion Band, the Farmersville Chamber of Commerce Band and the City of Cooper Municipal Band.
In 1925, Irons moved to Arlington to head the NTAC band and orchestra department. That summer he led the group on its first out-of-state tour. Some 30 years later, Music Man composer Meredith Wilson set his musical in a small town, circa 1912, and advised audiences that they "really ought to give Iowa a try." For three months, Irons and the NTAC band did exactly that, playing almost nightly in cities and towns throughout Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota and Missouri.
By the next year, Irons was again adding to his conducting duties, taking on the Grand Prairie Municipal Band in 1926 and the Fort Worth Ladies Band in 1927. The 1927 NTAC yearbook called Irons-affectionately known as "the Colonel"-"the best cornet player and band director in Texas." That year Irons arranged for the band to perform at the Southwestern Fat Stock Show and Rodeo in Fort Worth, and he signed a contract for a week of concerts at the Majestic Theater in Dallas.
In addition to his conducting and performing duties, Irons was a prolific composer and the author of such works as Emerald Isle, American Rhapsody, American Grandeur and the Hail to the Fraternity march. He also traveled extensively, teaching clinics and master classes and serving as a judge at band contests and festivals.
As head of the NTAC Music Department, Irons constantly looked to add talented instructors to his staff. That's how he discovered Dan Burkholder, a choir director in El Paso.
"I had a huge choir there, several hundred students,"
Burkholder remembers. "The colonel heard about it and he came out there and talked me into coming to Arlington to take over the choir here. They only had 20 or so in their choir at the time."
Within two years of Burkholder's arrival in 1949, the school, by then known as Arlington State College, boasted the One Hundred Singing Rebels choir.
"I was so thankful to the colonel for bringing me here," Burkholder said. "He was a wonderful gentleman, and we all loved him very much."
Irons' respect and love for all musicians, and particularly band directors, led him in 1937 to establish Phi Beta Mu, the international school bandmaster fraternity. Cothburn O'Neal, one of Irons' former students and then an English professor at the school, helped work out details of the organizational structure and select the name, which was interpreted to mean "Life, Love and Music."
Music filled Irons' life. As early as 1934 he was already said to have done more for the advancement of band music in Texas than any other individual. He continued teaching until his retirement in 1958. He died in 1967, and the University honored him as a member of its Walk of Fame in 1996. Today his beloved Selmer cornet is housed in the University Artifacts Collection.