February 28, 2018
By Erich Burnett
Howard Hatton photo, ca. 1987
Photo credit: Courtesy Oberlin College Archives

Baritone sang Mozart’s Requiem in response to 1970 Kent State shootings.

Long before and long after his retirement from the Oberlin Conservatory faculty in 1987, Professor of Singing Howard Hatton delighted in daily breakfasts with colleagues and friends and other townsfolk in Oberlin. Though the people and the locations have changed over the years—from the Campus Restaurant on College Street in the 1980s to the Oberlin Kitchen in more recent days—Hatton was a fixture wherever they went.

“I think it made his week,” remembers Alan Montgomery, a former opera coach at Oberlin who happened upon the klatch in his first day on campus in 1979. “He was always there, and he kept coming earlier and earlier. Finally, he would be finishing his breakfast when we were just arriving.”

A member of the conservatory faculty for 38 years, Hatton continued to attend daily breakfasts until late in 2017, when myriad ailments kept him confined to his home at Kendal at Oberlin. He died February 5, 2018, eight months after celebrating his 100th birthday with loved ones.

“He was a very gentle soul,” says Daune Mahy, a longtime professor of singing whose Oberlin career overlapped with Hatton’s final seven years on the faculty. “His students loved him, and they are really devoted to him. He was always a very sweet, very convivial person.”

One such student was Todd Thomas ’84, who has forged a vibrant career as a Verdi baritone, with recent engagements at Lyric Opera of Chicago and Theater Erfurt in Germany. Thomas transferred into Hatton’s studio in his second year on campus and found his life forever changed.

“He encouraged me to find the joy in singing,” says Thomas, whose wife, soprano Lisa Helmel Thomas ’84, also was a student of Hatton’s. “He taught me not to take myself too seriously, and he taught me the worth of a generosity of spirit. He also taught me along the way that being a great artist begins with being a good human being.”

Raised in Trinidad, Colorado, a young Hatton lived the life of a cowboy on his family farm and on neighboring ranches during his teen years. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1939 and a master’s in voice from the University of Michigan in 1941 before being drafted into the U.S. Army later that year. In the service, he took part in war bond shows, directed choruses, and sang as a soloist and in chapel choirs. After the war, he completed a master’s degree in music literature at Michigan and taught there during summers. Following an appointment at Allegheny College, he joined the Oberlin faculty in 1949.

In Oberlin, Hatton served as director of the Chapel Choir from 1950 to ’56 and was a soloist in numerous area churches for many years. In May 1970, in the days following the shootings at Kent State University, Hatton played a pivotal role in Oberlin’s response to the violence: He was the baritone soloist in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., a concert organized by legendary Oberlin choir director Robert Fountain.

Four decades later, Hatton was singing again. He performed renditions of The Lord’s Prayer twice in 2017: At the memorial for his longtime friend and fellow faculty member Martha Stacy, and for his own 100th birthday celebration at Kendal. Hatton and Stacy remained close to Oberlin in retirement, with regular attendance at Artist Recital Series concerts and other events on campus.

“He was a very easy-going man,” says Montgomery, a former accompanist for Hatton’s students. “He loved life. He loved being with people, and he loved Oberlin. He was the first one on the Kendal bus for a concert.”

Recently, Todd Thomas recalled a visit to Hatton’s studio that took place in his second year at Oberlin. The young student had been a music education major but felt compelled to turn his focus to singing. He asked his teacher whether he had what it takes.

“After a bit of a silence he responded, ‘Todd, my dear boy, that is not the question. The question is this: Is there anything in this world that could give you as much joy as singing?’ 

“I quickly answered: ‘There is nothing that can feed me like this,’” Thomas recalls.

“‘Then that,’ Hatton replied, ‘is your answer.’”

In recent years, Thomas often stopped in Oberlin while crisscrossing the country with family. And always he stopped at Kendal to see his mentor.

“In my last visit with him, he reminded me of the conversation I had in his studio in 1981. 'I am so very proud of you, Todd. You are really doing it,’" Thomas remembers hearing.

“He turned to me again and patted down his bushy mustache while asking, ‘Is there anything else that gives you more joy than what you are doing?'

“I reached out, grabbed his hand and held it tightly, and said to him: 'There is nothing that comes close, when all the pieces fit.’ It seemed we were both transported to his third-floor studio overlooking a verdant Tappan Square. Indeed, that was the answer to my question.”

A service in memory of Hatton will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 3, in Kendal’s Heiser Auditorium (600 Kendal Dr., Oberlin). It will be led by Rev. Brian K. Wilbert, rector of Christ Church, Hatton’s longtime faith community.

Hear Hatton's Requiem solo at the National Cathedral in May 1970 on SoundCloud.

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