In Memoriam: Paul ‘Tony’ Distler, Legendary Voice of the Marching Virginians

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Paul “Tony” Distler

Paul “Tony” Distler — director of the School of the Arts emeritus at Virginia Tech and former Voice of the Marching Virginians — died Dec. 28, 2016. He was 79.

“Tony — and all the students, faculty, and staff who studied and worked with him in the early years — paved the way for tremendous growth in the arts at Virginia Tech,” said Patricia Raun, director of the Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts. “For nearly 50 years, he strengthened the university, the town of Blacksburg, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the nation’s theatre community through his artistry, intelligence, and clarity — and through the extraordinary work and humanity of those whose passions he ignited with his teaching.”

After arriving at Virginia Tech in 1967, Distler helped build the performing arts program from a handful of faculty members into a division 10 times its original size. He served as the founder and leader of the Department of Performing Arts and Communications, head of the Department of Theatre Arts, and director of both the School of the Arts and the Division of Performing Arts.

“Tony Distler was a key architect in building the performing arts presence across campus, from the School of Performing Arts itself to the Marching Virginians on and off the field,” said Elizabeth Spiller, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “His memory will remain bright in the minds of those lucky enough to have known him, and his legacy will endure even for generations who never had the delight of hearing his resonant voice.”

That voice carried beyond the traditional stage. For four decades, Distler’s distinctive baritone could be heard booming over the public address system during the halftime show of the Marching Virginians, the 330-member band known as the Spirit of Tech.

“Tony’s role as ‘The Voice’ doesn’t begin to define his contributions,” said David McKee, director of the band for the past 30 years. “He was tireless and selfless in his support of the Marching Virginians. He dispensed invaluable advice to band members, and his lessons on showmanship, audience engagement, and professionalism shaped the band for years to come.”

During a special ceremony in 2007, the Marching Virginians honored his integral role in the creation and success of the band by naming the Tony Distler Marching Band Tower.

A celebrated teacher, performer, director, scholar, television host, and producer, Distler received the university’s W.E. Wine Award for Teaching Excellence, published in a range of journals and books, and hosted “A Better Mousetrap,” a regionally syndicated television series for PBS.

Upon his retirement from the university in 2004, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors conferred on him the title of Alumni Distinguished Professor emeritus.

Distler continued serving as the Voice of the Marching Virginians until 2014, the same year he supplied the voiceover during the installation ceremony of Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. He remained an ardent advocate for the arts at Virginia Tech, as well as the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. He spoke to dozens of alumni groups about the importance of the arts in educating the whole person as a rational, moral thinker.

Distler also advocated for quality of life for the elderly. He spent a decade as chairman of a major capital campaign for Warm Hearth Village, a retirement community in Blacksburg; in 2013, he served as president of the organization’s Board of Trustees.

He served on the Virginians for the Arts’ Board of Directors, chaired both the Blacksburg Partnership Collaborative for the Arts and the artisan network ’Round the Mountain, and served as a consultant on the historic Lincoln Theatre in Marion, Virginia.

Distler began his own theatre career as a child in 1948. In the 1950s and 1960s, he performed with such actors as Betty White, Anne B. Davis, Roy Schneider, and Robert Culp.

Distler was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Williams College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English. He received a master’s degree and doctorate in theatre from Tulane University.

A past president of the American Theatre Association and dean of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre, Distler was also a leader of the National Association of Schools of Theatre, an organization he served for 23 years.

“None of us in the arts at Virginia Tech,” Raun said, “would be who we are, what we are, or where we are without Tony’s strong and visionary leadership.”

A memorial service will be held in Blacksburg on May 5 — Distler’s 80th birthday.