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Beloved former School of Music Director William Denison remembered

February 19, 2019

The best leaders are those who lead by example.

Troy University and the Troy community lost a strong leader and a key member of the Trojan family with the passing of former Director of the School of Music Dr. William “Bill” Denison last Friday at age 81.

Denison came to TROY in September 1967 and remained a fixture in the John M. Long School of Music for five decades, wearing many different hats during that time.

A portrait of Bill Denison by Woodi Ishmael.

A portrait by Woodi Ishmael.

Dr. Diane Orlofsky, Director of Choirs at TROY, is one of several music faculty members Denison hired in his tenure, joining in 1986.

She remembers his quiet but strong presence as a guiding force in her growth at the University.

“The job required me to wear a lot of different hats (music ed, theory, piano, voice) and he served as my quiet mentor and example through those early years,” Orlofsky said. “We had countless meaningful conversations and many hilarious moments sitting (music) juries together — his droll sense of humor got us through those long hours — but what I treasure most was the way in which he allowed all of us to ‘take flight’ and was our most faithful cheerleader.”

Even after his retirement, Denison continued to support TROY students and his colleagues.

“I learned how to be a leader from watching Bill,” Orlofsky said. “I’ll be indebted to him the rest of my life due to the lessons he taught me through example. He was always in attendance at our concerts and would offer heartfelt words of support to me. I choose to keep these and so many other memories close to my heart, and I try to honor the legacy he built every time I step on the podium.”

Denison taught music at TROY for 50 years, including classes in music theory, music history, conducting, piano and organ, and he conducted opera and musical workshop performances along the way.

On Jan. 1, 1998, TROY named Denison the first Director of the John M. Long School of Music, a position he held until retiring in 2005. His impact in that role can still be felt today.

“Bill was a kind, gentle soul who was very nurturing and cared about people a great deal, and he took the time to help them be the best that they could be,” said Dr. Larry Blocher, who succeeded Denison as Director of the School of Music. “We have accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Music. That happened in 1995 under the watch of Dr. Denison and Dr. (John M.) Long. They knew that to take the next step forward as a school of music, you needed that level of sophistication and commitment.”

Blocher credits Denison’s selflessness with building the School of Music into a powerhouse.

“While Dr. Denison doesn’t have a building named after him, I really feel he was a quiet force behind what we have here,” Blocher said. “He made a significant difference in so many students’ lives. There’s no question his legacy lives on at the Long School of Music.”

Dr. Catherine Allard, TROY’s Coordinator of Applied Music, saw Denison build that legacy firsthand.

“I was privileged to know him as a boss and friend. He led by quiet example but was willing to put up a fight when he thought it was warranted,” Allard said. “He was a man of great character and a champion of TROY students. He wanted everyone to have the best musical and academic experience possible, and he worked to make sure rehearsal and performance schedules reflected that. He was self-effacing about his gifts, but he demonstrated them daily in his leadership and in his music.”

Denison served as Director of the Collegiate Singers from 1971 to 1998 and conducted annual winter performances of major choral works for more than 25 years.

Denison also conducted many productions of the opera workshop and musical theater at TROY, ranging from grand operas such as “Rigoletto” and “Faust” to Broadway standards like “Oklahoma” and “My Fair Lady.”

Those who worked with him in the School of Music remember his selfless approach to his role as director.

“When I met him during my interview, he was the kindest, most considerate person and immediately made me feel at home,” said Dr. Mark Walker, Director of Bands, who Denison hired in 2002. “He always had time to talk and share advice. He was very soft-spoken and did everything possible to ensure success of the faculty and students.”

According to those who worked for and with him, Denison always valued others above himself.

“Dr. Denison was a model of artistic, academic and personal achievement for all involved in music at Troy University,” said Music Industry Coordinator Robert W. Smith. “I was so fortunate to have studied with him both privately and in the classroom. In my initial faculty appointment at TROY, his leadership and colleagiality as the first Director of the John M. Long School of Music was invaluable. I am eternally grateful for his life of service above self at Troy University and the community at large.”

Outside TROY, Denison was a stalwart of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, where he served as organist and choirmaster, roles he also served at First Presbyterian Church.

It was in this role that Donna Schubert, associate vice chancellor for marketing and communication, best knew him.

“William Denison has been a kind and gracious constant in my life since I came to Troy,” Schubert said. “He played the organ and even selected most of the music for our wedding. I knew I could never make better selections than he could. I was fascinated to watch him play the organ at St. Mark’s. I loved seeing his preparations to play and worship. How we all loved him.”

Denison is survived by his wife, Jane; his two sons, Joey (Sharon) and Rae (Bronda); his seven grandchildren, Will Denison, Joey (Becca) Denison, Carrley Barron, Cailyn Barron, Trey Denison, Katie Denison and Alec Denison.