FORT WALTON BEACH — For the past 50 years, the Fort Walton Beach High School band has lived up to the school motto, "Excellence without exception."

Every year, the band has qualified for state-level competition, an impressive feat for any program, academic or athletic.

“That band has been to state festival constantly every year, and that’s something that not a whole lot of bands do,” said Ernest Hebson, retired FWB High School band director. “To my knowledge this 50th consecutive year is better than any band in the state regardless of how long they’ve been here.”

In addition, the FWB High School band has marched in almost every major televised parade in the country including the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Fiesta Bowl, the Hollywood Christmas Parade, the Orange Bowl Parade, the Mexico City Festival, the Cotton Bowl Parade, and Washington D.C.’s Cherry Blossom Festival. The band has also played in Carnegie Hall in New York City twice.

The reason behind the sustained quality of the FWB High School band program can be attributed, in part, to two men; Hebson and Randy Folsom, the school's only two band directors.

The early years

Ernest Hebson built the FWB High School Band program from the ground up — he was the first band director for the school when it opened in 1969 — and he still graces the school from time to time to check in on the program.

“The first year I believe, we had probably 60 to 70 seventh- through 10th-graders in the band,” said Hebson. “We started in a small room, and by the third year we had over 300 kids in the program.”

With Hebson at the helm, it didn’t take long before the country took notice of the band at Fort Walton Beach High School. During the 1977-1978 school year, the band marched in the Tournament of Rose Parade in Pasadena, California. Soon after that performance, the band was featured on national television through CBS’s teen program “Razzmatazz.” But Hebson said his real claim to fame was when the band was selected to play at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration ceremony in 1981.

“They picked one band from Alabama, Georgia and Florida, and we got picked with our resume,” Hebson said of the selection process. “The fundraising started, and of course because of the Republican Party, we were getting money from all over the place. We left with enough money to buy 14 used sousaphones and do a whole lot of other things with that money.”


2 Directors, 1 Band

In 1988, Randy Folsom entered the scene as assistant band director at Fort Walton Beach High School. For the next 11 years Hebson and Folsom worked together, and when Hebson retired in 1999, he handed the reins over to his protégée.

“I felt confident that he would do a great job, and he has,” Hebson said of Folsom.

Now, having led the Viking Band for 20 years, Folsom said what sets the FWB band apart from others in the state is his and Hebson’s dedication to each individual player.

“The unique thing about us is that we have been willing to go the next step each time to go to state each year,” Folsom said. “The first thing we do is try to educate kids individually. The more you pay attention to the individual players the better your group will be.”

Sure enough, during a recent rehearsal for the upcoming state competition next week, Folsom walked the Viking auditorium listening for any stray note in the band’s performance.

“Trombones don’t be wimpy, be bold,” he called out. “Check your pitches and make sure everything is articulated the way it says.”

Although they have been the dream team for 50 years for the FWB High School band, both Hebson and Folsom agree that without support from the middle school programs, parents and school district, their program would not be what it is today.

“It’s been really like a dream come true to be in a place like Fort Walton where all this is important,” Folsom said. “People value it here from parents to staff here and good feeder programs, everything really is in place for it to be successful and for me to be able to be here. It’s been great.”

Celebrating 50 years

As for the students, FWB High School seniors Lauren Tasillo and Clayton Jowers said they feel proud to be part of the school band’s 50-year legacy.

“There’s a lot of pride behind it. I mean it’s 50 years, of course, of straight-up superior excellence,” Jowers said. “It’s a sense of pride that I can uphold that same standard, but also kind of a duty to hold that standard. So, it teaches you a lot of things about responsibility and leadership and all those good qualities you should have going into the real world.”

Tasillo, who is a senior and first-chair alto saxophone, said that having both band directors still actively present in the band really strengthens the program.

“To me, it definitely makes a difference, just having that consistency,” Tasillo said. “I think it’s really important having them (Hebson and Folsom), especially since they’re so supportive of all of us.”