William French

Friday, August 22, 2008

"Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom." —Charlie Parker

William Thomas French, a man who devoted his life to his family, friends, colleagues and who loved music passionately, died at 3:45 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008, from complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 84.

William "Bill" was born in 1924 in Dawson Springs, Ky., to George Everett and Ethel Major French.

Bill served in World War II on the Navy Ship USS Straub from 1942 to 1945. After his term in the Navy he attended Murray State University where he pursued his love of music and received a bachelor's degree in music education. After graduation Bill taught music in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., where he met and married his wife of 52 years, Betty Jo Smith, who was also a teacher.

Bill and Betty had three daughters during the next few years and moved to Cape Girardeau in 1963. He accepted a position at Southern Illinois University in the Office of Financial Aid in 1965 and was employed there until 1980. Bill is credited at SIU with developing one of the earliest computerized programs to handle complex Educational Opportunity Grant programs.

He obtained a master's degree in counseling from SIU in 1975. Bill was highly regarded on the campus at SIU, and was ultimately recommended for the position of director of financial aid at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau in 1980. In a letter from the office of the president of Southern Illinois University, it was said that Bill possessed many qualities that included but were not limited to integrity, goodwill, energy, an understanding of people, openness, candor and intelligence. He accepted the position and retired from Southeast in 1989.

Throughout Bill's life he pursued his life's greatest passion, music. He was a veteran of big band dance music. He began his career in music in the 1940s playing with many commercial dance orchestras. One of the bands Bill played with included Len Forster & His Orchestra in the 1940s. Bill was admired by his fellow Len Forster bandmates and they were frequently on the road traveling from city to city. One of his bandmates wrote that, "Bill kept us entertained on the long bus rides by presenting cleverly informative lectures on any subject we could name."

His quick wit, delightful sense of humor and his dedication to his music earned Bill many friends for life. He also played in The Elmo Donze Band, The Bill Brandt Band, The Pete Cooper Band and The Jack Staulcup Orchestra. Ultimately he organized his own band with the "great dance band sound" of Bill French and his Orchestra. Bill played at the Purple Crackle Club more than 30 years when the big band sound was in its proud tradition. He also played many other venues including the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., The Club in Birmingham Ala., and The Show Lounge in Owensboro, Ky. Bill once referred to his band, with his typical sense of humor in tow, as the "Jack Daniels of dance music — refreshing, spirited, and easy to take — with a little kick and a lot of tingle".

Among Bill's many accomplishments, he was a lifetime member of American Federation of Musicians, member of Cape Girardeau Municipal Band many, many years, and was a lifelong member of Veterans of Foreign Wars. He also served on numerous academic boards and associations.

Bill's memory will live on through the countless recordings of band sessions throughout his career, a wonderful collection of band memorabilia, and the contribution he made to many lives along the way.

He is survived by his devoted wife of 52 years, Betty Jo French; three loving daughters, Anne French-Davis of Cape Girardeau, Jennifer Lee French of Cape Girardeau, Amy Lynn French of St. Louis; adoring granddaughter, Lindsey Anne Davis of Cape Girardeau; two sisters, Janet French-Webb of Princeton, Ky., Anna French-Fortner of Sarcoxie, Mo.; and a number of nieces and nephews.

He was preceded in death by his parents and a brother, George Everett French Jr. of Princeton.

There will be a celebration of Bill's life from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday at VFW Post 3838 in Cape Girardeau.

Expressions of sympathy may take the form of contributions to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, Church Street Station, P.O. Box 780, New York, N.Y., 10008-0780.

McCombs Funeral Home of Cape Girardeau assisted with arrangements.

Online condolences may be sent to www.mccombsfuneralhome.com.