YORK -- Fred Stewart went to college with long hair, a love for music and no clue what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
But sometime after his freshman year, he found a career path in harmony with his interests.
He wanted to be a band director.
"I set out with a mindset that I wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids and play some good music along the way," he said.
Now, after 28 years of directing three high school bands and winning four state championship titles, he's ready for his finale.
Stewart recently announced to his York Comprehensive High School band classes that he will be retiring and sent a letter of resignation to the school board. He'll step down at the end of the school year.
"This is year 28 for me teaching, and that is, of course, when we as teachers in South Carolina can retire," said Stewart, who taught for 12 years at York, 11 years at Andrew Jackson High School in Kershaw and five years at Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School.
Caleb Cooper, a senior trumpet player, was among the first to learn of the retirement. While sad to see Stewart leave, Cooper said he's glad he was part of his last class.
"He's so funny and such a good teacher. He knows what to teach and what to talk about," Cooper said. "He makes music fun."
Senior Grace Amer, the band's drum major, said Stewart has made a tremendous impact on students.
"I think the reason why he's become such a great influence on students and everything is that he is so passionate about music, but he's also very caring about the students," Amer said. "He's always proven to us and showed us how to be champions in our minds and hearts."
It's fitting that this part of Stewart's life should end in York because it's where his love of music started.
Growing up in York, he was in the band and learned to appreciate all kinds of music.
"I've played everything from legitimate classical music to jazz to rock to church music," he said.
Over the years, he's been able to combine a wide variety of music on the field to make the marches fun and successful for students.
From 2000 through 2003, the YCHS band won four state championships in the 3-A division. It was an accomplishment Stewart never anticipated. "It would be a dream to win one state championship in your lifetime, but to win four in a row is a neat experience," he said.
This year, York placed second in the 4-A division behind rival Clover.
Winning awards isn't what Stewart will miss most, though. It'll be the students, he said.
"There have been a lot of students who have just been really special and close -- almost like your own children, to a degree," he said.
Stewart taught more than just music, YCHS Principal Diane Howell said.
"He's produced the skills in our students that they need to win state championships," Howell said. "It's not just the winning of those championships, it's the character you have to develop in those students to get to that level of competition."
Stewart has made the program one of the largest in the area and has generated strong student interest in the program, Howell said. To manage the large groups of students with the ease that Stewart did shows the respect he had earned, Howell said.
Because of the quality program he developed and with plans for the new school, Howell thinks there will be a lot of interest in the program. She hopes she can find someone among the applicants with the same qualities as Stewart.
"We certainly want to follow in the same footsteps where not only do we produce students who can perform, but someone who will be a part of the community and a good role model for the students," she said.
While leaving will be sad, Stewart is glad he can see the results of his teaching efforts.
"I have students who are 44 and 45 years old," he said. "It's great just to watch that and to see that you've hopefully made a difference in their lives as they've grown up."
Stewart plans to stay in York after he finishes the semester. He said he's looking at several different areas to continue with in retirement.
"I don't know which will pan out yet, but I just want to be able to try some different things," he said. "So far, I'm in good health and able to do it, so I said, 'Why not?'"