As Santos De Leon closed out his final concert as Jane Long Intermediate School’s band director, he was greeted with an unexpected encore.
Around 40 of his former students entered the room and joined him on stage to play the Jane Long school song.
“There were tears,” De Leon said of directing them one last time.
For former students like Grant Socol, it was an opportunity to return the kind of support that De Leon has been giving his students for more than a decade.
“He really cares about us and cares about his job,” said Socol, who graduated from Bryan High School last week. “It really does mean a lot that we’re not just people who he taught and then kind of dismissed and moved on to the next group of kids, but that he actually makes a point to stay in contact with us.”
“Mr. D,” as the students call him, has been with Jane Long for 15 years, and while he is stepping down as band director, he plans to remain at the school next year as a fifth-grade music teacher. He said seeing his students come out for one more song was a signal that he has made the kind of impression he always hoped he would.
“It made me feel like king for a day that kids would leave their homes, leave the comfort of a Friday night and come and spend a few minutes with me to let me know that my career was what I thought it would be,” De Leon said. “And it ended in such a manner that it touched my heart forever.”
His love for band started early. In 1976, an 11-year-old De Leon stood outside the music room of his school in Brownsville each morning for the first few weeks of class. He didn’t have an instrument of his own, but he wanted to be there nonetheless. When the teacher finally noticed him out in the hall, he placed a call to De Leon’s parents and encouraged them to buy their son an instrument. Not long after that, he was in the room with a saxophone in his hands, and De Leon said “it took off from there.”
After attending Texas Lutheran’s band camp on a scholarship, De Leon knew he wanted to be involved with band for the rest of his life. He said he was fortunate to have a string of mentors to support him along the way, though his high school director still holds an extra special place in his heart.
“The man who changed everything, Mr. Davenport, took me under his wing and made me feel like I was worth something,” De Leon said. “He really made me want to do this as a career.”
De Leon and Davenport stayed in touch, but even then, De Leon couldn’t have guessed that decades later he would have a chance to teach Davenport’s grandson at Jane Long.
“When I found out that this was happening, I could not believe it,” De Leon said. “Here we are 400 miles away from home, and his grandson is in my band. I feel like that’s divine. I’ve been blessed in many ways like that over my career.”
After high school, De Leon started at Sam Houston State University and then served six years in the Army to help cover the cost of his final years of school. Stationed in Germany and working as a cook, De Leon said his military experience offered a perspective that he still draws from today.
“Seeing how just hardcore it can be, the challenges we face in peacetime [and] in wartime, really opened my eyes to how strong of a person one can be by becoming a member of the military,” De Leon said. “As a result, I was able to return to college at Sam Houston State, finish my degree in a very strong manner, and it propelled me to having really great jobs, good possibilities.”
While he recognizes the effectiveness of military discipline, he’s hardly a drill sergeant in the band hall. It’s important for kids to have fun, De Leon said, and he strives to maintain a welcoming environment where every student can grow.
“I choose to focus on the positive things they do and try to improve their performance through positive interactions and encouragement,” De Leon said. “That’s important to me, especially at this age.”
For many of his students, De Leon’s approach has sparked a lifelong love of music. Socol, a saxophonist who has benefited from De Leon’s experience with the instrument, will be entering the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band in the fall. His mother, Kara Socol, is thrilled to see her son continue his musical career, though she said his love of band initially came as a surprise.
“He has absolutely thrived in band, and he had not really shown any interest in music up until that point,” Kara Socol said. “The fact that Grant not only stayed with it but loved it — has loved every moment of it — says a whole lot about Mr. D and about his impact on Grant’s life.”
De Leon’s dedication is evident, but it’s also clear that he doesn’t do it alone. Kara Socol said he’s rarely seen without his wife, Victoria De Leon, who worked in various positions in Bryan ISD before retiring about two years ago.
“Mrs. D is every bit as supportive of the students as Mr. D is,” Kara Socol said. “They are definitely a team, and I think they set a tremendous example of what teamwork in marriage should look like. And I think that’s really important for the students to see.”
A consistent presence at high school concerts and football games, the couple are often surrounded by students looking to catch up and express their gratitude. And as Grant Socol says, it helps to get there early. “If you’re not one of the first people to see him there and go up to him, you’re going to have to wait your turn,” Grant Socol said. “He’s definitely loved and appreciated by both present and past students of his.”
It takes a lot of extra time and effort to stay involved in his students’ lives, but De Leon said he doesn’t see any other way to do his job. He plans to maintain that effort in his new position and further on into retirement.
“It makes a kid feel like they’re worth something,” De Leon said. “And that is the ultimate goal — that kids feel like they have somebody behind them so they can continue to have a good life.”