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story.lead_photo.caption “We all have the ability to do anything. It is what we spend our time doing that separates us. You can be good, better or you can be the best.” - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

At the age of 6, Danny Fletcher became the man of the house.

His father — Jesse James Fletcher — died in a car wreck, rolling his 1957 Mercury five or six times in the middle of the night in 1962.

The young Fletcher heard a knock on the door and knew immediately something bad had happened.

“All my life, I’ve had that,” Fletcher says. “When things happen that are catastrophic or there is a death in my family, I would have this feeling.”

At the time, Fletcher was the oldest boy of six children living at the Fletcher home on High Street — now Martin Luther King Drive — in Little Rock. An older brother lived with a grandmother.

“I grew up fast. I became the man of the house when I was 6 years old. My mom told me, ‘you are the man of the house.’”

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.

Thea, 17, was killed in a car wreck.

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, who has been friends with the Leopouloses since their children were young, immediately volunteered to help the organization.

“He has changed more lives than almost anyone I know,” Paul Leopoulos says of Fletcher. “He changed Thea’s life. He changed Thaddeus’ life.

“How many others did he touch?” Leopoulos adds. “Thousands and thousands.”

The admiration is mutual. “Thea Foundation serves the students in the state of Arkansas in the arts,” Fletcher says. “Paul is a champion of the arts. That’s why we get along so well.”

Paul Leopoulos calls Fletcher his mentor.

“He loves kids. He truly is one of those people who gives of themselves to the students and his teachers that he manages above and beyond himself,” Leopoulos says.

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.”

They lived at 11th and High streets and had a front-row view of the Central High School desegregation crisis that was unfolding around them. He and his sister would watch protesters from their front yard, thinking it was a parade.

“My mom would say ‘Y’all come in the house’ and we would say ‘Mom, we want to watch the parade.’”

The family was on welfare but Annie Mae made sure her children were exposed to music. A young Fletcher got involved in art on his own. He says he could always draw and in sixth grade he won first place in an art contest.

“Art came first and I tell you they were both working hand-in-hand,” Fletcher says of art and music. “In the black community, we always had some lady that taught piano. My mom wanted all of her kids to learn to play the piano.”

When he was in the fourth grade, Fletcher and his sister, Bev, were enrolled in piano class with “Mrs. Douglas.” She taught 40-50 children each Saturday.

“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?”

Part of the torture was sitting in Mrs. Douglas’ living room all day while other kids played. The other torture was a slap on the knuckles with a ruler for playing the wrong note.

After a few months, Fletcher decided to play hooky, waiting until his mother drove out of sight to take off and play with his friends. He begged his sister not to tell “Mo’Dear,” their nickname for Annie Mae, which means “Mother Dear.”

“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.’”

He did get a spanking, but when he told Mo’Dear about the knuckle raps, he was allowed to drop out of piano classes.

BOY IN THE BAND

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.

“I told him I played the saxophone,” Fletcher says, fessing up to the lie. “Suddenly I am a saxophone player.”

But his mother said she couldn’t afford to buy him a saxophone. After moping around for a few days, his mother took him to a music store on Spring Street and got him a saxophone.

“They had a rent-to-purchase plan. My mom found a way. She always found a way.”

“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.’”

But the jig was up when he arrived at band practice and was told to play the major scales.

“I choked. That’s what I did. We were practicing hard but it took us months to catch up with those other kids,” Fletcher says of he and his fellow former Horace Mann band members.

“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.’”

SERGEANT MAJOR

Fletcher began his military career when he enlisted as a private in the 106th Army Band, Arkansas Army National Guard in 1973 — the same year he graduated from Hall High. He used the money he made in the guard to attend classes at UALR.

Over his 42 years of military service, he served in many leadership positions including acting commander of the 106th Army Band. When he retired in 2015, he was a sergeant major.

He met his future wife, Latanya, at UALR. She was an art major and he was a music major. He helped her with some of her photography assignments.

“She was supposed to be shooting some still life, but all she took were photos of me,” he says. “She got an F on the project. … Her professor told her ‘I wanted a still-life project, not a romantic-life project.’”

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.

“He really is a wonderful asset, not only to the school district but to the entire community,” Poore says.

Fletcher, Poore adds, is “one of those rare guys” who can straddle being friendly with the students to knowing when it is time “to get down to business.”

“He really has a vision of where he wants to go.”

HOT CROSS BUNS

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.”

At Parkview, many of the students came up to shake hands with Fletcher or get a hug. Fletcher says he has taught many of the students during his career.

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?”

Reflecting on recent school shootings, Fletcher questions whether the student shooters were involved in music or the arts.

“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.”

Fletcher’s pet peeve, he says, is people who say they have no talent.

“We all have the ability to do anything,” he says. “It is what we spend our time doing that separates us. You can be good, better or you can be the best.”

More information on the Thea Foundation’s Into the Blue event can be found at theafoundation. org/into-the-blue .

Photo by John Sykes Jr.
“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.”
SELF PORTRAIT

Danny Fletcher

DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Sept. 5, 1955, Little Rock GROWING UP, MY FAVORITE MUSICIANS WERE: Art Porter Sr. and James Brown.

MY FAVORITE INSTRUMENT IS: The saxophone.

MY FAVORITE VACATION SPOT IS: Hawaii.

BEHIND MY BACK, MY STUDENTS SAY I’M: Hard but fair.

MY FAVORITE CAR IN MY FLEET IS: A 1974 Super Beetle.

MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE MOVIE IS: Something the Lord Made.

MY FAVORITE RECENT MOVIE IS: Hidden Figures. ON SATURDAY MORNINGS I LIKE TO: Get outside.

ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Driven

Print Headline: Danny James Fletcher Sr.

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