High profile little rock school district arts director danny fletcher helps students students change their lives through music nwadg

Fletcher had the same feeling when he was leaving a Memorial Day service at the National Cemetery in 2001. He was there to play with the Army Band. Thea Leopoulos, who was at the cemetery to place flags on the graves of veterans, left 10 minutes after he did and they both drove west on Interstate 630.

Fletcher, who holds a bachelor’s degree in music education and master’s and doctoral degrees in education administration from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and is now arts director for the Little Rock School District, had taught Thea and her brother, Thaddeus, when he was band director at Horace Mann Magnet Middle School.

Six months after Thea’s death, her parents Linda and Paul Leopoulos formed the Thea Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to build the self confidence of children through arts-related activities either in school or through extracurricular programs.

Fletcher, a former chairman of the Thea Foundation, remains active with the organization. The foundation’s annual fundraiser, Into the Blue, will be 6 p.m. Saturday at the Center for Humanities and Arts, the University of Arkansas — Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock.

He has been instrumental in helping students change their lives through music as an instructor and now as arts director for the Little Rock School District, and Danny Fletcher has his mother to thank for insisting he take piano lessons while other kids were outside playing.

After Fletcher’s father died, his mother, Annie Mae Fletcher, had to find work. Up until then, she was a housewife who didn’t drive. After a cousin taught her how to drive, she got a job as a seamstress at Ottenheimer Brothers, a ladies garment manufacturing company.

“I always wanted better for my family because we didn’t have a whole lot. After my dad died, I realized we were poor. I could look outside without opening the window, if you know what I mean. All the heat went off in the house and you had to dress fast.”

“It was torture is what it was,” Fletcher says as a warm smile spreads across his face. “It was absolute torture. My mom would drop us off at Mrs. Douglas’ house around 9 and pick us up around 4 o’clock on a Saturday and you had to sit in there and when one person got through with their lesson, you would move down a chair. Can you imagine that?”

“The third time when I was making it back to Mrs. Douglas’ house after playing all day, I walked up and saw my Mom’s car and I saw her and Mrs. Douglas standing out there talking,” he says. “All the way home, Mom says ‘Just wait till you get home.’”

In junior high school, Fletcher wanted to play in the band for two reasons — girls, and band members got into the games for free. He started out on the violin but now can play most instruments with the exception of “instruments you’ve never heard of.”

“The principle of music is the same. Each instrument produces a sound. With the saxophone, you push a key and blow in it. With the piano, you push a key, the guitar you strum, the violin you pluck or use a bow, but the principles are the same.”

He continued to play violin in the band at Horace Mann High School. In 10th grade, Fletcher learned his class was going to be bused to Hall High School. It was nearly an all-white school and the band director was not keen on letting in black musicians, Fletcher recalls.

The black students had to interview individually for a spot in the band. After a friend was rejected because the band director said he didn’t need another string bass player, Fletcher thought he probably didn’t need another violin player either.

“Believe you me, I regretted that for a moment because all of the way home all I heard was ‘You are going to play this. It ain’t going to be like those piano lessons. You are going to play this. I don’t care if you are dead or dying. You are going to play this.’”

“He said you lied to me about playing the saxophone, didn’t you?” Fletcher recalls the band director asking. “I said ‘Yes sir.’ He said “I ought to whoop your butt, but you seem like a nice kid and your mom’s made an investment so you are going to learn how to play that horn.’”

Latanya was hired as the photographer for Fletcher’s show band, Portrait, in which he played gigs during college. The two married in 1984 and have two sons, Danny Jr., 28, and Joshua, 22. Latanya has been the Eileen Fisher clothing representative at Dillard’s for 32 years.

After graduating from UALR in 1985, his first job was band director at Pulaski Heights Junior High. After six months, he was recruited to become band director at Horace Mann Arts and Science Magnet Middle School. In 2001, he became arts director for the entire school district. The district has about 25,000 students.

Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore says when it comes to Fletcher, “nothing is too big or too small.” He says Fletcher is involved in everything from repairing musical instruments and overseeing major art and music events, to taking over a class when an instructor is needed.

Fletcher spends his days visiting different schools and checking in on his music and art teachers. On a recent swing through three schools, Fletcher listened to elementary students trying to play “Hot Cross Buns” on recorders at Chicot Elementary School. The afternoon ended with the woodwind orchestra at Parkview Magnet High School taking on “Salute to the Sultan.”

His own children, Danny Jr. and Joshua, are accomplished musicians. He enrolled Danny Jr. in piano lessons at age 4 and Josh at age 5. Danny Jr. now plays piano, drums, trumpet and all of the bass instruments. Josh plays piano, the brasses and the guitar. Danny Sr. is the only woodwind player in the family.

Father and sons played in a trio known as Jazz R Us. Josh, who recently graduated from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, still plays with his dad. Danny Jr., who also graduated from UAPB, now works with the U.S. Department of Justice in Tampa, Fla. Both were involved in school bands, just like their dad.

“The thousands of kids that I taught, their social skills were well above the other children,” Fletcher says of band members. “They are the ambassadors for the school. The fine arts curriculum is the only curriculum that actually teaches etiquette on how you should carry yourself and how you should behave. What if we got everybody involved in that?”

“The arts and humanities are very important to us as individual people, they are very important to as a collective society. When you look at the amount of violent crimes going on now — things that never existed in our history and you wonder why,” he says. “It’s because something is missing from those people’s lives and I dare say if we do the research on those individuals — were they involved in the band, were they involved in the choir, were they involved in the orchestra, the glee club, the beta club? Probably not. They weren’t involved in their school. The more we get kids involved in school, the better they are going to be.”