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“He was such a special man, so talented; he was more than my mentor – he was my lifelong friend.”
Byron Cutshaw paused as he talked about J. Ernest Threlkeld Jr., a former high school band director in Shelby County, who passed away in Palm Coast, Fla., on Sunday at the age of 74 after a battle with lung cancer.
“I’m sorry I’m so emotional,” he said. “It’s just that I told him on the phone last week that I was going to come and visit him in Florida as soon as I could, and that’s when he told me he didn’t have long to live.”
Cutshaw said Threlkeld’s legacy to Shelby County is greater than most people realize.
“People just aren’t aware of how much he has done for the community,” he said. “He was one of the founders of the community theater in Shelbyville. One of their first productions was The Music Man. Also, we had a lot of very talented individuals when I was in his class back in seventy-seven. Several have gone on to be professional musicians because of his influence.”
Emily Chatham, a violinist with the Charlotte Symphony in North Carolina, another former student, echoed Cutshaw’s sentiments.
“He was just a wonderful influence on me,” she said. “I just feel like I would not be the violinist – or the person – that I am today if it weren’t for his influence, because he always pushed me and everyone else to go beyond our comfort zone and to really be the best that we could.”
Threlkeld, a native of Madisonville, was born Feb. 2, 1938, to Ernest Sr. and Frances Threlkeld. His mother was a much-loved piano teacher in Simpsonville who died in 2009 at the age of 100. He grew up in Simpsonville.
He worked as band director in the Shelby County school system from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. He was a graduate of the University of Louisville with a BME (music degree) and also taught music in Jefferson County and Eminence.
He was a jazz musician, a car enthusiast, and a retired boat racer. He is survived by a son, Miles Threlkeld, of Newport, a brother, James Threlkeld of Maryland and his partner, Mary Lee of Florida, where he moved a couple of years ago.
Ken Byrdwell, network administrator for the Shelby County School system, said Threlkeld, who was his band director in 1967, was his inspiration to pursue a musical career.
“He was responsible for me going to EKU (Eastern Kentucky University) as a music major,” he said. “In 1982, I took his position at Shelby County High School as the orchestra and jazz band director. We were friends and co-workers. We also played music in the Rusty Pipes Big Band and some other professional engagements.”
Byrdwell described Threlkeld as being very dedicated to musical education and the arts.
“He had a fantastic way of getting the best from his students and would do absolutely anything for them,” he said. “He had very high standards and would work endlessly to achieve them. All of his students loved and respected him. He will be greatly missed.”
Byrdwell remembered a trip to band camp that Threlkeld took them to at EKU.
“We couldn’t wait to go to band camp each year at the end of the summer,” he said. “One summer, he badly messed his leg up in a boat race, and we didn’t think we would get to go to camp that summer. So some guys got together and put together a rickshaw of sorts, kind of like a pony buggy. I believe it was Mark and Keith Sorrels who got the idea and maybe built it. Anyway, we went to band camp and took turns pulling Ernie wherever he needed to go.”
Another former student, Mary Shannon McGillen, said Threlkeld really broadened the musical horizons of all his students.
“He had us playing all kinds of styles of music, classical, pop and jazz,” she said. “He brought in big-name artists, and they played music with us. So he exposed us to all of that. His nickname was bear. One of the funny things I remember, his hall pass was a ten-gallon bucket full of concrete. It sat by his desk, and I don’t remember anybody ever asking to go the restroom,” she said with a chuckle.
That was a practice that Threlkeld kept down through the years, said Rick Taylor.
“He was my band director in the sixties, and my son had him when he was at West Middle,” he said. “When my son told me about his hall pass being a bucket of concrete, I said, ‘Tell me about it!’”
Cutshaw, who now lives in Spencer County, said he will always remember the music of the Rusty Pipes, a band Threlkeld started in which he was a member.
“We played music by the greats, the big band music of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller,” he said. “I’m trying to resurrect that band, now,” he said. “I told Ernie about it the last time I talked to him, and I told him we need a saxophonist.”
Cutshaw said that none of Threlkeld’s students would ever forget him.
“He was one of a kind,” he said. “We will all miss him; I know I sure will.”