While students and teachers headed home Friday for Christmas break, one teacher’s holiday travel plans are quite different.
Brent Whitaker is Southeast Bulloch High School’s choral director, and he is being deployed overseas for the next five months. A senior master sergeant in the Air National Guard, Whitaker is the band manager for Band of the South, one of the Guard’s five elite national concert bands.
“I was scared to tell my students that I wouldn’t be here next semester,” said Whitaker, who is also chairman of the school’s fine arts department. “I waited until the last minute to tell them, just in case my orders changed.”
With about 40 members, the Band of the South and its five smaller ensembles are stationed out of the McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base near Knoxville, Tennessee. Its musical ambassador missions are usually in the southeast, but the unit has smaller deployment teams.
“We have a dual mission that includes being deployed anywhere in the world where there are troops with any branch of service,” Whitaker said. “We give troops a feeling of home.”
Whitaker also is the lead singer of Space A, one of the unit’s ensembles that primarily plays rock ‘n’ roll.
His troop will travel to at least 12 countries during the deployment, and they are all trained to be combat ready. Military operational security protocols prevent him from discussing where he will be sent, but he will have limited contact with his family, and his last deployment took him to Qatar.
“It’s heartbreaking, but we’re going to get through it,” said Niven Griffin, a senior at SEB who sings alto. “We love Mr. Whitaker, and we’re praying for the best.”
Starting chorus from scratch
A gifted teacher, Whitaker started Southeast Bulloch’s chorus from scratch 11 years ago with 20 students. It is now a nationally acclaimed choral program that has performed at Carnegie Hall, Disney World and the Governor’s Mansion and has received accolades from the Georgia Music Educators Association as one of the premier programs in the state.
More than 150 vocalists perform and compete in the school’s five groups: Advanced Chorus, Women’s Choir, Concert Choir, and the Literary Girls Trio and Boys Quartet. Their combined accomplishments and the level of difficulty of the arrangements they sing are astounding.
“All my siblings have been in Mr. Whitaker’s choral program,” said Teddy Smith, a junior who sings bass. “They all loved it. He teaches us how to be better workers and be independent. All my siblings came out of the program with a stronger work ethic.”
Whitaker’s students have always known that they share him with his musical military calling. He’s served in the reserves for more than 20 years, so planning choral competitions and performances around his Guard schedule is commonplace.
“I’m usually gone two weeks in the summer, one week during the year and two weekends per month, but it’s been seven years since I’ve been deployed.”
This semester Whitaker was emailing his principal one minute and fielding calls from the Pentagon the next while he planned a deployment alongside preparing for this past week’s annual standing-room-only Winter Chorus Concert series, posting grades, and pre-planning lessons and experiences for the substitute who will lead his classes.
“I want the kids to have great experiences while I’m gone and to keep moving forward,” he said.
Maggie Ally to assume duties
He’s entrusted his students to familiar, capable hands. Maggie Ally, Whitaker’s first student-teacher, will be his substitute. Ally is right next door at Southeast Bulloch Middle School, where she has led the choral program for three years. She will alternate her time between the two schools during Whitaker’s absence.
“It is heartbreaking to see him go, but I also think it’s an incredible opportunity for us (students) to show him how his teaching as influenced us,” said Katie Pedersen, a senior first soprano. “When he comes back, we can show him all the work we’ve put in and how self-sufficient we can be.”
Whitaker hopes to return home in May before the students perform their year-end concert.
“Even if I won’t be directing them, I’d like to be able to see them,” he said. “I told the kids that this was their time to see what they can do with me out of the equation.”
When he does return, he plans to retire from the military with 25 years of service.
Born in Honolulu and raised in North Dakota, Whitaker is the son of a Navy veteran, so military service has always been in his blood.
“I had my parents sign a waiver so I could join the Army when I was 17,” he said. “I spent six years in the Army as a combat engineer and a short time in the United States Army Band.”
After active service, he returned to college. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in music technology from Georgia Southern University. Since 2001, he’s been a part of Bulloch County Schools.
His faculty peers selected him as the 2012 Southeast Bulloch Teacher of the Year, but due to his military service, he humbly removed his name from consideration to advance to the district and state levels of the competition due to schedule conflicts with his military commitments.
Loyalty to Southeast Bulloch
“SEB and the school system have bent over backwards for me,” Whitaker said. “The administrators have gone above and beyond to make this deployment easier for me and to show their appreciation for my military service in ways they would not have to by law.”
Stephen Hoyle, Southeast Bulloch’s principal, said, “I see firsthand what an inspiration and role model he is for students. He has even helped our feeder middle school and three elementary schools in their music programs. The dedication he shows to our school and community is evident as well as his dedication to our state and country.”
Bulloch County Schools supports its employees who serve in the reserves. The Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve honored former SEB Principal Donna Clifton, who retired in May, with the prestigious national Seven Seals Award and Patriots Award, which are given to individual supervisors who support citizen warriors through a wide range of measures.
Whitaker and his wife of 23 years, Tonya, have three children. During last week’s concerts, he surprised his wife by dedicating one of the chorus’ selections to her, “Homeward Bound,” by Marta Keen.
A line from the song says, “Set me free to find my calling, and I'll return to you somehow.”