Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith Bandleader T.K. Adams demonstrates his conducting technique.
COVINGTON - Fifty-two years ago, a segregated University of Georgia denied access to T.K. Adams as a black student who wanted to obtain a master's degree in music education.
Now, Adams is being honored as the keynote speaker at UGA's Hugh Hodgson School of Music on May 10.
When Adams first got the invitation, "I said to myself, 'Me?' Then I thought about it and I said, 'Why not me?' because I have a story to share."
Sitting in the Covington home he has shared with his wife, Louise, for more than half a century, Adams tells parts of that story. He grew up in Waycross, and, having watched his father and uncle play instruments in church, decided to pick up the saxophone in eighth grade. By the time he was a senior at Center High School, Adams' teacher and mentor, Dr. E.C. Christian, had entrusted him to conduct a band class. That same year, he hopped a Greyhound bus and traveled 50 miles to Hazelhurst High School once a week to conduct a band class there. The parents of students each paid him 50 cents for his service.
Adams earned a bachelor's degree in music education from Morris Brown College, and intended to go to the University of Georgia for his graduate degree. But the school rejected his application, as no black students were admitted into the program at that time. Instead, the state of Georgia paid for Adams to go to VanderCook College of Music in Chicago.
Being rejected by his school of choice because of his race was disappointing, but Adams said he made a choice not to harbor a resentment.
"If I had bitterness, I wouldn't be where I am today," he said."I always said, 'What I can do, I can do and what I can't do, I can't do,' and I kept going."
Adams graduated from VanderCook in 1964. At his own commencement ceremony, he recalls the speaker telling students to "go out and find ourselves a community and build ourselves a kingdom."
Adams took those words to heart, growing deep roots in Covington, his hometown of choice. He moved here shortly after graduating from Morris Brown. Adams became the band director at Cousins Elementary and High School in 1959 and remained there for 36 years.
He posted inspirational and instructive quotes, most of them his own, on the walls of his band room, such as : "Results, not excuses;" "Walk softly and trust your talents;" and "I am nature's greatest miracle and I will believe in myself."
Today, Adams can hardly leave his house without being approached by a former student, often reciting one of those quotes. He has taught and mentored students who have gone on to become a judge, lawyers, an assistant police chief, college professors, ministers, a surgeon, the assistant to Gen. Colin Powell and the chief banking officer in Washington D.C.
Adams plans to use his platform as convocation speaker to encourage graduating students to share their knowledge and talents as mentors.
His mentor, Dr. Christian, now 94, has guided him throughout his career, and also provided that first spark of inspiration for Adams' son, Timothy Jr., to become a musician.
Adams recalls taking his 10-year-old son to a performance where Christian played the cello. On the car ride home, he said, "I want to play in an orchestra one day."
Adams Jr. is now the chair of the percussion department at UGA, the school that once denied his father admission. He was principal timpanist for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for 15 years, played with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for five years and has taught at Carnegie Mellon University.
The Adams' have had the joy of watching their son play at Carnegie Hall and for the pope.
Adams said he and his wife have always encouraged their son to press forward with his dream, though he was often discouraged, as the only black musician in most of the orchestras with which he has performed. It was naturally assumed by teachers that Adams Jr. would pursue jazz music, because "that's considered black music," but he wanted to be a classical musician like his father, Adams said.
Adams encouraged his son to "fall forward" much as he did when he was denied admission to UGA.
"I knew that if I didn't leave the memory of discrimination and prejudice behind, I couldn't move forward," he said.
In 1993, Adams created an opportunity for local musicians of all ages and from all walks of life to pursue their love of music when he formed the Newton County Community Band. The group performs several shows per year and has members as young as teenagers on up into their 80s, hailing from eight counties, including Newton and Rockdale.
What does he love so about music?
"I like the expression. All kinds of feelings. You can feel sad, or you can feel excited. Music does that for you," he said. Also, "It's a self- discipline thing. You've got to stick with it until it meets your approval. If you play a solo, you can't fault nobody but yourself."
A band, however, is a team effort, he said, and it requires self-discipline and concentration to learn to start and stop at the right time and blend in with the other players.
Adams said his life has come full circle, with the upcoming speech at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music.
"If you work hard and do the right thing in life, these things happen to you," he said.