Aaron and AJ Bates
Aaron and AJ Bates

A father and son whose love of music led them both to legacies as Lakeland High School drum majors are being memorialized in Lakeland Saturday and in Tallahassee Monday following their deaths in an auto accident last weekend.

The son, Aaron Bates II, was known to family and friends as AJ. He showed an early interest in music, starting in middle school. In the Bates family this isn’t unusual since almost all play one or more instruments. In AJ’s case, as an infant he was taken to Lakeland High School football games and listened to the band that his father, Aaron Bates, had earlier led as head drum major. AJ later saw his dad lead the band during alumni nights.

UPDATE — Video of Saturday’s memorial service:

At the age of 17 during this school year, following years of playing in middle and high school band, AJ followed in his father’s footsteps as the LHS head drum major. A planned future with music lay ahead after graduation. He had his eye on Florida State University’s College of Music, said mother Katie Bates.

Last Saturday morning, AJ and Aaron, 40, were on I-10 driving to to AJ’s music audition at FSU when they were killed in a multi-vehicle collision in bad visibility conditions.

“They were so kind-hearted, and no matter how much they had, they would give,” Katie said. “They are open-handed, servant leaders.”

Katie said AJ told her his view of leadership was to serve his community, not take over. “He wanted to build, not to own it,” she said.

Katie, a 4th grade math and science teacher at Rochelle School for the Arts, said she met her husband in band at Lakeland High School. She said many people are reaching out to her that she has never met. One example is a message from a mutual friend connected to the office of Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady, a Lakeland native. “Aaron had done an internship there when he was younger,” she said.

Others messaging her on Facebook say they only know her through her husband.

“Students are reaching out,” she said. “It’s really nice and amazing to see that ripple of kindness.”

Band students, along with the LHS Cheer Squad, and student representatives from around the area, are taking a role in a joint funeral service for father and son scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, at Access Church, 4303 S. Florida Ave. The service is open to the public, and doors open at 1:30.

Katie said cheerleaders will be handing out yellow ribbons, significant because that was AJ’s favorite color. In addition to his musical talent, AJ was a part of the cheer squad where he met his girlfriend, Faith Hunt, who organized the yellow ribbon project.

In a post on the band’s Facebook page, former LHS head drum major Hannah Smith (2019-2020) urged the Dreadnaught band family and generations of music-makers, although feeling grief, to cherish the memories shared with Aaron and AJ as well as keep the Bates family and friends in their thoughts and prayers. “And practice kindness to yourself and others as we all begin to process the unimaginable loss of two bright shining souls that were a major part of the Dreadnaught Band and Lakeland High School Cheerleading programs.”

Aaron and AJ Bates
Conducting the LHS Marching Band: AJ, left, and Aaron

The bandsmen, she said, were known for service, leadership and passion. “The Bates instilled an unparalleled sense of determination and commitment into the spirit of every band member, modeling habits to last for a lifetime,” Smith said in her post.

Katie said the program at Saturday’s service will include the LHS band’s performance of three of her son’s favorite big band pieces, “Victory at Sea”; “Anchors Away”; and the LHS alma mater.

“There will be a big presence of students,” she said. ”The church, which holds 600, will open the lobby and live stream the service” on its YouTube page.

Besides the Saturday service, there are other local and state observances. On Monday Lakeland High School is hosting a student- and faculty-only program as school ends. A school office employee said the purpose is for students to share their goodbyes.

On Monday FSU’s College of Music is hosting a vigil. A Facebook post written by David Plack, director of college bands, describes a young man with a bright future who will be remembered in a student-organized vigil.

Ax-Caliber Axe Venue and Coffee House in downtown Lakeland, where AJ worked part time, said on Facebook, “We are extremely saddened to hear this news of one of our wonderful barista AJ and his father. Our hearts are hurting!”

Information on a memorial to the Bateses will be forthcoming on the LHS band’s website, according to Smith’s post. She suggested that friends support Katie and her four children though a GoFundMe drive.

A family member created a Facebook group where friends are sharing memories and photos of Aaron and AJ.

Cindy Bates, AJ’s grandmother and Aaron’s mother, likes to recall an image of AJ and brother Caleb who had nine instruments in their room at one time. In addition to trombone and other instruments Caleb, plays piano and sings in chorus.

“Music was a big part of their lives,” Cindy said. “They were always entertaining us.”

Caleb, an 8th grader at Rochelle School of the Arts, plans to join the LHS band next school year. Like his father and brother, he plays brass instruments, including the euphonium and the trombone.

Sister Nora Claire, who also attends Rochelle, plays piano and is in the band. She made first chair in oboe at All County competition. Younger siblings Caroline and Parker are in elementary school in 4th and 2nd grades respectively.

The oldest brother, Virgil (named after AJ’s grandfather), was a drum major at Crystal Lake Middle when the school had a marching band.

Katie Bates noted that the services, vigils and future projects for her son point to a strong music community. After four years in the band it felt like a little family, she said, noting she has read many comments about her son from fellow students on Instagram.

“He left us with his life at his most shining moment,” she said of AJ. “They (father and son) went together and did not leave one another behind.”

She said one of the most important things she hopes people will remember about her son’s leadership legacy is something he told his band members.

“At the end of the (school) marching season, they let the seniors speak about what the band members mean to them,” she said.

She quoted him: “It was an honor to be a part of a program to help build it, but really, it built me.”

Two Polk Education Foundation Scholarships are in the planning stages. One will focus on a single student college fund. A second will provide funds for students who want to play in a band but need assistance with the cost and fees. Contact the Polk Education Foundation for information.

News Channel 8 coverage:

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  1. I pray for peace and comfort to the family of Aaron and AJ. My daughter was a member of the LHS band as a freshman with Aaron he was an amazing drum major.

  2. Great job, Donna Renfroe. May the peace that passes all understanding be poured out to this remarkable family. My sincerest sentiments to Cindy Howell Bates and all her family. My heart is with you.

    Carolyn Hennecy Smith

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