Hamilton remembered for love of music
by Paige Rentz
prentz@annistonstar.com
Mar 25, 2013 | 9206 views |  0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Van Hamilton, owner of Hamilton Band Instrument Company for nearly five decades, died Saturday after more than three weeks battling a head injury he sustained during a fall early this month, according to his daughter Patsy Haynes. He was 90 years old. (File photo by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star)
Van Hamilton, owner of Hamilton Band Instrument Company for nearly five decades, died Saturday after more than three weeks battling a head injury he sustained during a fall early this month, according to his daughter Patsy Haynes. He was 90 years old. (File photo by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star)
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Many student musicians marching across football fields in northeast Alabama for generations, the metal of their instruments gleaming under the lights, might have been left on the sidelines if not for the quiet help of Van Hamilton.

“He was always going out of his way to do things for kids to learn to play,” said Jeff Gossett, band director at Jacksonville High School. “Band was his thing and anything he could do for kids to experience it, he would do it, no questions asked.”

Hamilton, owner of Hamilton Band Instrument Company for nearly five decades, died Saturday after more than three weeks battling a head injury he sustained during a fall early this month, according to his daughter Patsy Haynes. He was 90 years old.

A radio operator during World War II, Hamilton began his musical career as band director at Alexandria High School. He taught at multiple schools, including Anniston’s Johnston Junior High and Anniston High.

But Hamilton entered a new side of the band business in 1958, after recovering from tuberculosis at a time when that was rare. Out of respect for parents and students who might be nervous about sharing a classroom with someone who had recently survived the disease, Hamilton started a home-based band instrument business, said Woodfin Grove, pastor emeritus at First United Methodist Church, where Hamilton was a parishioner.

Hamilton borrowed $1,800 from one of his uncles and set out in a Volkswagen Beetle to call on band programs all over Northeast Alabama, said his daughter Cathy Hamilton. Thus, Hamilton Band Instrument Company was born.

“He started from nothing and built it into a very successful business,” said Jack Amberson, a former employee. “At one time he was considered the only game in town.”

The business, which grew into a storefront on 15th Street, became a home of sorts for local band directors and student musicians.

For Alan Conway, a retired band director, dealing with the Hamilton Band Instrument Company was “more than just a business thing,” he said. “You’d just go down there and you felt welcomed in; you felt like you were part of the family.”

“He did everything possible to make band programs, especially in Northeast Alabama, better by working with band directors,” added Ken Bodiford, director of the Jacksonville State University Marching Southerners. He said that when schools could not afford instruments up front, Hamilton was always good to offer them credit or set up payment programs so the music programs wouldn't be without equipment.

Cathy Hamilton said that mentality was something her father taught her in her 25 years working for the family business. “As long as they’re trying to help themselves and they need help,” she said, “you just bust it to give them a break.”

As much as his passion for music helped him build a career and a business, Hamilton’s extracurricular passion was riding his Honda Goldwing 1800 motorcycle. “He would get on a bike in a heartbeat and go anywhere at any time for any reason as long as it was on a motorcycle,” Cathy Hamilton said.

Hamilton and his wife Lila grew up together in Fort Payne and were married for 63 years, according to Haynes. “They were sweethearts to the very end,” she said of her parents.

The pair courted on motorcycles when they were dating in the 1940s and continued to ride for years, said Cathy Hamilton. Her parents, she said, had ridden through every state, including Alaska and Hawaii, and on a trip to Europe they rented bikes and rode through the Swiss Alps.

In 2003, just before he turned 81, Hamilton and his daughter Cathy, along with several of his friends, embarked on a 4,800-mile trip to California, up the coast, into the mountains of western Canada, back down into the Rockies and home. In the evenings, she said, her father did push-ups and sit-ups, keeping up his strength so he could continue to ride well into his 80s.

At age 86, Hamilton survived a terrible motorcycle crash that landed him in intensive care for 10 days and finally ended his riding.

“He was an incredibly strong, self-disciplined man,” Cathy Hamilton said. “When he set his mind to do something, he would do it.”

Hamilton was very active in the Methodist church, serving on the board of stewards and as chairman of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, which works with the bishop in appointing the church’s pastors, Grove said.

“He had a wide range of friends across many spectrums,” Grove said. “He was upbeat, optimistic, easy-going. He met people easily and made them feel comfortable.”

Haynes said her father had a great sense of humor and always had a nickname for everyone. But ultimately, she said, he was a very strong Christian who would do anything for anybody. His last act, she noted, was to benefit the less fortunate; Hamilton suffered his head injury while carrying food to be donated to those in need.

Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.

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