Dennis J. Zeisler, who played a major role in the expansion of the Music Department at Old Dominion University during his 39 years as a faculty member, died March 30 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 73.
Zeisler served as chairman of the Music Department for 15 years, developing new degree programs and hiring several faculty members. He also served as director of bands and professor of clarinet and saxophone. Under his direction, the ODU Wind Ensemble became a premier performing ensemble. It has recorded for TRN Music Publishers and Frank Erickson Publications and recently performed in concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.
He founded and conducted the Virginia Wind Symphony, served as 77th president of the American Bandmasters Association and sat on the board of the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic.
"Dennis was a major asset to the University and a significant factor in the growth of the Department of Music," ODU President John R. Broderick said. "He exhibited a rare blend of passion (for music), compassion and sense of humor. My heart goes out to Carol and his children."
Nancy Klein, professor of choral music and director of the F. Ludwig Diehn School of Music, recalled that when Zeisler retired in 2018, the band room was renamed the Dennis J. Zeisler Rehearsal Hall to honor him.
"Those letters hang proudly over the entrance, to be seen by former students, community instrumentalists and the hundreds of instrumentalists yet to study at the Diehn School of Music," she said.
Klein also spoke of his important and lasting impact on the department.
"Dennis had big dreams for the small Department of Music that he joined in 1979," Klein said. "Many of these dreams came to pass under his watchful eye. The student numbers have more than tripled, we have expanded our faculty numbers, the graduate program has grown, and the Wind Ensemble gained statewide recognition. Although he was retired by the time we received School of Music status, I am confident in stating that he plowed the field for this event, allowing me to see it come to pass and bear fruit."
Jim Bliss, a former student, recalled how Zeisler inspired him.
"When I went back to work on my music performance degree at the age of 40, he was the voice of encouragement and support," Bliss wrote in a in a post accompanying the online obituary. "Ten years later when I earned that degree, he welcomed me into the Virginia Wind Symphony. His ability to bring out the best in other musicians and other people in general served as a model for others to follow."
Zeisler enlisted in the Army as solo clarinetist of the West Point Band, and during his time at ODU he was in regular contact with military musicians throughout the region and trained conductors regularly for the Army.
"Dennis was one of the most energetic people I have ever known," Klein said. "He loved making music and engaging with musicians of all ages. He impacted the lives of thousands of students, many of whom went on to become band directors and teachers, and he was their mentor and role model.
"I owe much to him; we all do."
He earned Bachelor of Music, Bachelor of Music Education and Master of Music degrees from the University of Michigan, where he was solo clarinetist of the Symphony Band.
He is survived by his spouse of 33 years, Carol (Corcoran) Zeisler, and their two children, Sarah (Adam) Wisiniewski of Norfolk, Va., and Jeffrey Zeisler of Washington. He is also survived by his first wife, Kathleen (Perrin) Betts of South Boardman, Mich., and their two children, Nathaniel (Cristen) Zeisler and Jennifer Zeisler, both of Los Angeles; his sister Janice (Paul) Zucker of Falls Church, Va.; three grandchildren, Brooke, Perrin and Aubree; 12 nieces and nephews; his stepmother, Charlotte (Wert) Zeisler of Canandaigua, N.Y., and his mother-in-law, Alexandra (Kisla) Corcoran of Arlington Heights, Ill. He was preceded in death by his mother, Frances (Fleischman) Zeisler, and father, Kasriel Zeisler.
There will be a celebration of life performance by the Virginia Wind Symphony in the fall. Further details will be available in the coming weeks. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Dennis J. Zeisler scholarship fund to provide financial support for instrumental music majors at ODU. To give, click this link, select "scholarships" and type "Dennis Zeisler" in the scholarship name box.