John Shearer: Former Bright School Teacher Aaron Lowe’s Guitar Travels Country And Returns To Chattanooga

Friday, September 20, 2019

From 1964 to 1987, Aaron Lowe was a popular and even-tempered Bright School shop/manual training teacher, who taught students how to make items out of wood.


It has always been an important position at the school, as learning to work with one’s hands was a fundamental part of the education philosophy of the late Mary Gardner Bright, who founded the independent elementary and pre-K school in 1913.



Lowe had been a wood craftsman dating back to his childhood, when his father would bring home leftover pieces of wood from the Thomasville, N.C., furniture factory where he worked.


The younger Mr. Lowe was also as skilled at shaping music notes as items made out of wood, as he was also an accomplished piano and guitar player.


As part of his interest in both arts, he had started making guitars primarily around the late 1950s and early 1960s before going to work at Bright fulltime. In fact, that accomplishment and skill likely helped him get the job.


And at least one of these guitars has apparently quite a story to accompany any melody it could play.


I occasionally will receive an email from someone who finds my contact information connected to a story I have written related to a topic they are searching for on the Internet, and recently I received one from Lance Carter in Tempe, Ariz.


A retired guitar maker, he has taken on the altruistic hobby and volunteer activity of repairing and restoring guitars and donating them to worthy students.


He found one of Mr. Lowe’s old guitars, and in an effort to find out who he was, found his obituary as well as a story I had written reminiscing about my former teacher following his death in 2006. I forwarded his email to Bright headmaster O.J. Morgan and communications/alumni relations official Elizabeth Davis, and Mr. Morgan said Bright would love to have the instrument and use it for its Cadek music instruction program.


Within a few days, the handsome instrument with a slight mid-century look of light-colored wood and unique circle designs arrived at the school with warm wishes from Mr. Carter.


The guitar has a glued note inside saying it was made for Harry W. Philips (with only one ‘l’), and school officials at first thought it might have been constructed for a student. But a look at an old city directory quickly tells whom it was made for – the first pastor of Rivermont Presbyterian Church, who served there in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before Mr. Lowe went to work at Bright.


Mr. Lowe’s obituary also says he was a member of Rivermont Presbyterian, which is on Hixson Pike only a mile or so north of Bright School, so that must have been where they crossed paths.


Efforts to track down Mr. Philips were unsuccessful. An obituary on his wife, Ginny Philips, said they also served churches in Brevard, N.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; Roswell, Ga.; and then retired to Gainesville, Ga. An online search said he later moved to Montreat, N.C.


If he were close to the same age as his wife, he would be in his early-to-mid-90s today.


His brother, Davison, had been the president of Columbia Theological Seminary in the Atlanta area and died in Black Mountain, N.C.


As for the guitar, which could have also been made for or used by Rev. Philips' son and namesake, Hal, Mr. Carter said he has traced it to Black Mountain as well, so perhaps it stayed in the family. He said the instrument was purchased as a gift, and later offered to Mr. Carter by the recipient so that he could repair and donate it.


While Mr. Lowe likely considered himself an amateur luthier, or maker of stringed instruments, Mr. Carter said he was still impressed with the handiwork.


“I noticed the nicely figured and well quarter-sawn tone wood, a guitar built with care in the traditional Torres style,” he said. “When I think of this guitar, I am reminded of the movie, ‘The Red Violin.’ Inspired by a Stradivarius missing for 300 years, it is a story which tracks the adventurous life of an 18th century violin as it passes through many hands, and ends up in the small hands of a worthy student in the present time.”


He told school officials he was glad to donate it and thinks it is a neat story regarding ending up at Bright where Mr Lowe taught.


“I'm glad your guitar is home and I hope it finds itself in countless more small hands,” he said in an email to the school.


Mr. Lowe’s three children were also pleased and grateful to hear the story and offered up small amounts of knowledge they had regarding their late father’s guitar making.


“I want to thank Lance Carter for taking the time to look up our father and Bright School and donating the guitar,” said Lyn Lowe Fisher.


As the oldest child, but still quite young when he was making guitars, she does have a few memories of his luthier days.  


“I have memories of wood soaking in the bathtub for the guitars,” she said. “I guess the wood that went on the side of the guitar and the small strips of wood with which he made the designs around the opening needed to be made pliable.”


She seems to remember that he made 17 guitars in all.


Middle child Lisa Stauffer said her father was part of a guitar-playing group in Chattanooga and loved to play Spanish music like flamenco. And as a side hobby, he made and possibly sold several guitars, she said.


She thinks the busyness of life – including teaching piano fulltime and later going to work at Bright about the same time youngest child Steven was born -- kept him from making more.


“And in 1965 he and his father started building the house in Hixson where we were to live,” Lisa added. “So I think he gave up the guitar simply because of lack of time. He picked it up now and then, though, although he said he no longer had the calluses to play it well. He taught Steven to play guitar.”


As a sidenote, Lisa said she was actually married by the Rev. Philips at Roswell Presbyterian Church years after the minister left Chattanooga, and he baptized her first child.


Steven said he has two of his father’s guitars – one from the year he was born in 1963 and another one Mr. Lowe used for himself. The latter features a fret board that is a quarter inch wider than standard.


He said he was thinking his father only made 10 or so guitars, but is happy to hear about the donation.


“I know he would be pleased,” Steven said.


The guitar – which inside says it is guitar No. 10 and has Mr. Lowe’s name and address -- is expected to get good use at Bright. That is due in part to that universal fact that elementary school students sometimes forget to bring something important to school, an action with which Mr Lowe would have obviously been familiar.


“The guiltar Mr. Lowe made is now used in our guitar instruction through Cadek,” said Ms. Davis of the tradition-rich music program that is now partly operated at Bright through GPS after being affiliated with UT-Chattanooga for years. “If a student might happen to forget his or her guitar, he or she can use Mr. Lowe’s guitar.”


As both a current staff member and a Bright alumna from when Mr. Lowe — a former Cadek piano teacher — was in his last years at the school, she is also personally excited to hear about the donation.


“I just think it’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “Mr. Lowe was a shop teacher beloved by many, many alumni, and I think having something he made and took a lot of care to make is really special for the school.”


Bright headmaster Mr. Morgan thinks it’s a fascinating story, too.


“It shows not only the history of the school, but the far-reaching impact that what’s done at the school has on people far and wide,” he said of Mr. Lowe’s skills that he also tried to pass down to the students.


While the vast majority of the Bright students over the years were likely unaware he had made a few guitars of good quality, although they likely would not be surprised, they were quite familiar that he was interested in the making of stringed instruments.


That is because for years his Bright students had opportunities to make “Lowetars.” Those were one-string wooden instruments close to the size of guitars, but they had triangular-shaped bases instead of curved ones.


This was no doubt due to the fact that triangular shaped wood was obviously a lot easier to put together and less time consuming for elementary-age students than using curved and bent wood.


But the completed products likely created the same feeling of pride for the students – and their parents – as Mr. Lowe’s guitars likely did for him.


And like his guitar that is now back at Bright School, many found their way around the country through alumni and even their parents moving elsewhere as the years passed.


The whole story seems fitting perhaps for a sentimental country song – the kind, of course, sung with a guitar.

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