In Memoriam: Gerre Hancock

Portrait by Paul Newton, 2003, which hangs in the St. Thomas Choir School.

Gerre Hancock died on Saturday afternoon, January 21, 2012, of coronary artery disease. We all knew the day would probably come (he had a long history of heart trouble), but seeing the RIP in the subject line on my BlackBerry simultaneous with a phone call sent a shock of unbelief through my system.  There followed much internet activity–emails and Facebook posts, and in the ensuing days I added links and details as I learned them, together with scans of pictures from various sources, primarily old issues of Cantate, the magazine of the St. Thomas Choir School.

A colleague at my church, who had seen my several Facebook posts, asked me on Thursday after Gerre’s death “how did you know Gerre Hancock?  What was your relationship?” probably thinking that I was one of his many students, or had sung in his choir.  So, I relayed some of the thin line of continuity that threaded through our respective life’s pathways.  Just the previous Sunday the Gospel reading was about the calling of the disciples, and it came to me: that’s it!  I was a disciple of Gerre Hancock, I followed him.  I commended him to others and I spread the news of what he and St. Thomas Church were doing.  How I wish I had studied formally with him, which isn’t to say I didn’t learn a lot from him by observation, both in church services and recitals, and in less formal, even social settings.  You couldn’t help but learn from him if you absorbed and remembered his playing and talking.

I first met Gerre Hancock in January 1973.  I was a student at the University of Maryland and was studying organ with Paul Callaway, the legendary organist of Washington Cathedral, who had himself been a student of T. Tertius Noble at St. Thomas.  Dr. Callaway thought it would be a good idea if I went to New York and played one of the regular Sunday afternoon recitals following Evensong at St. Thomas.  I had played at most of the venues in Washington open to college students with aspirations and the idea of a New York recital evoked mystery and excitement redolent of the big time–like a rookie trying out for the major league.  After all, this was the place where Dr. Callaway himself had studied, the place where Marcel Dupré had made his famous recordings a mere seventeen years before, the organ which G. Donald Harrison gave his life trying to finish–hyperbole perhaps, but some people actually talked that way about GDH and St. Thomas in that had died while finishing the organ in 1956, after walking home in extreme heat because he couldn’t get a taxi during a subway strike.

There was a lot of legend to contend with in my mind.  So it was that I walked into the music office on the appointed day to practice.  Gerre got up from his desk and greeted me, introduced me to his secretary, Louise Meyer (who had been Searle Wright’s secretary at Columbia University before they disbanded the chapel music program), and we were off: “Isn’t it just WONderful that you are studying with Paul! You know he got his start RIGHT HERE!  And, he was the organist of what was then St. Thomas Chapel right over on East 60th Street.  What “songs” are you going to play? That’s quite a program, are you sure you wouldn’t want to trim it a little–not that I would ever want to second guess the great Dr. Callaway. ”   And so it was, in a matter of moments I was a colleague, junior to be sure, but a respected, even treasured part of the scene, companion to the legacy, part of the lineage of the great St. Thomas scene past and present, just like that.

When I arrived a few days later on Sunday afternoon for the recital, for some reason I did not attend Evensong–nerves probably.  I walked through the now familiar entrance to the Parish House at 1 West 53rd Street, through the iron bars of the outer gate where legend has it that Dupré got locked between the inner and outer doors during his 1956 visit, and into the music office.  Louise Meyer was there and greeted me warmly.  As I sat and waited I was quickly aware of a couple of small children who were all over the place playing gleefully.  Miss Meyer sort of rolled her eyes. “The Hancock girls,” she said. “I can’t do anything with them!”

In those two events surrounding my New York “debut” I saw and experienced for the first time the essence of the world of Gerre Hancock–the warm welcome, the “we’re all in this together” attitude, the collegiality, the whole family involved in the enterprise of church–even his giving aid and succor to Miss Meyer, she having been ousted from her long time Columbia University St. Paul’s Chapel position–in summation, I saw the Gerre Hancock that the world would come to know and love, and it only intensified and strengthened as time went on.

From there on, my encounters with Gerre and with St. Thomas were similar to those of so very many other budding organists and church musicians like me. When I moved to Philadelphia to take my first church, and later when I had jobs in the suburban towns, it was an easy trip into New York. Friends and I thought nothing whatsoever of striking out after Sunday morning at our own churches to explore the myriad options a Sunday afternoon in New York offered, and not just St. Thomas.  St. Bartholomew’s and Riverside regularly had thrilling Sunday afternoon services of music.  In fact, I vividly recall that during the first few years of Gerre’s and Fr. Andrew’s tenures at St. Thomas, attendance at Evensong was modest by comparison with St. Bartholomew’s, especially during Advent when the stores began to be open on pre-Christmas Sunday afternoons and the Even-Song oratorios like Messiah or the Bach Magnificat would pack the church.

I first attended the annual Choirmasters’ Conference in 1977 when I met George Guest for the first of many times–at the Choirmasters’ Conference, and in Richmond and Cambridge.  These were really magnificent innovative events that took full advantage of the Anglican tradition, about which many of us were just learning and which was in fact only just beginning to emerge in America.  They also took full advantage of the church and its central location in New York.  Who wouldn’t want to come to New York for a day or two and rub elbows with the greats to learn a new trick or two to take home. We could immerse ourselves in the nitty-gritty of rehearsal technique, and in lectures learn first hand about the inner workings of some famous choirs in England we’d hitherto known only through recordings and broadcasts, and we’d sit at lunch with the likes of George Guest, David Willcocks, and Philip Ledger.  Gerre was also good about including topics that he knew we all had to deal with in our own churches, even though they might not be part of the St. Thomas regimen. We learned from Fr. John Andrew all about being partners in worship and we heard him proclaim from the pulpit that our salaries were absurdly low, and that we needed to get to know our clergy, to socialize with them–he said he drank liberally of Gerre’s vodka, and Gerre drained his bourbon!

And so it was that as time went by, we sent our brightest and best to the Choir School if we could convince their parents, and the Hancocks came to our churches, either by themselves or with the choir.  They validated our work and pumped us up in front of our own clergy and vestry members proclaiming that we were their beloved friends and colleagues. I’ve never known what contractual arrangements were made with the church about time off for their concerts, but I do remember seeing regularly in the issues of Cantate, which started to appear in my church mailbox, news of not only the choir’s tours, but of the Hancock’s recital tours as well.  I do remember with great laughter that in 2004, not too long after it was announced that the Hancocks would be leaving for the University of Texas, both Judith and Gerre came to my church in Richmond, Virginia, for a weekend of events to celebrate the renovation of our organ, details of which had been arranged about a year prior. It was the Fourth Sunday in Lent and I marveled at how they could each get away from church, and Gerre quipped with his mischievous grin “well, what are they going to do, fire me?!  Besides, the young people love to have a chance to do all the playing and directing.”

Yes, I followed him–particularly after I moved to Virginia.  If he were playing within driving distance I reveled at the chance to hear his signature improvisations, to chat with him (usually briefly, sometimes more expansively) at the reception where it was always “so good to see you.  Give my admiring and loving best wishes to Gwynn,” or to my mother (who had once helped with a reception), or to a choir member who had written him a note, and so on . . . and the remarkable thing about this whole scenario is that I know for a fact that it played itself out literally hundreds of times throughout the country.  No bishop or circuit riding preacher ever worked harder looking after his flock than Gerre did tending to the souls of those who befriended him or looked to him for reassurance and inspiration.

Now the sun has set for him and a great life has come to an end.  When all is said and done I am sad, to be sure.  Sad that I can’t pick up the phone and chat for a few minutes, or make the drive to some venue to hear him and have a good chuckle over something, and I’m especially sad that I can’t hear him play a church service again.

But, oh!  Am I thankful!

–thankful to Gerre for simply being himself and sharing himself with us.

–thankful to Judith for loving and sustaining him.

–thankful to Deborah and Lisa for supporting him and sharing him with us and being a part of it all.  I particularly remember a poignant scene from when they must have been in their early teens: one Sunday afternoon after Judy had played the post-Evensong recital at St. Thomas, as the ovation went on, they each went up and presented their mother with flowers.  I have no idea what it was like for them growing up in anything but a typical household, but as one who observed from afar, I was always glad for their presences and I know they were never far from their father’s thoughts.

–thankful for Fr. Andrew for nurturing and supporting Gerre and for sharing him and St. Thomas Church with us all.  Surely the church knew that large contributions probably weren’t forthcoming from most of us, but the welcome mat was always out and the hospitality was continuous and contagious.

Most of all, I am thankful to God for creating, sustaining, and redeeming his devoted servant, Gerre.

In closing, I am reminded of attending Virgil Fox’s memorial service in November 1980 at The Riverside Church.  There was a visiting choir which joined the Riverside choir for some major works of Vaughan Williams, much of whose choral music was heard for the first time in this country at Riverside. At the end of the service, following a quiet benediction hymn, but before a concluding thunderous organ work, one of the clergy read these words from John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, from toward the end of the book, as the protagonist at the end of his life journey is about to cross the great divide:

After this it was noised abroad that Mr Valiant-for-Truth was taken with a summons, by the same post as the other, and had this for a token that the summons was true: ‘That his pitcher was broken at the fountain.’  When he understood it, he called for his friends and told them of it.  Then said he, I am going to my fathers, and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am.  My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it.  My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who now will be my rewarder.  When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went he said, ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ And as he went down deeper, he said, ‘Grave, where is thy victory?’  So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

May it thus be so for our beloved friend and brother, and fellow organ-grinder!

“I do not believe in goodbyes, a theologically unsound word at best. I rather like the phrase, ‘Go with God’ and I rather like the phrase, ‘Till we meet again.’ The Choristers know how easy it is to read Uncle Gerre’s mind, for he is so simple-minded; reading my mind at this very moment, you’ll find these words: May God bless you richly; See you later.” GH from his address on his final Sunday at St. Thomas, June 2004. Photo by George Bang after his final improvised postlude on “Ora Labora” that same day.



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6 responses to “In Memoriam: Gerre Hancock

  1. George W Bang

    Neal, you left the most poignant and expressive tribute to Gerre that I have read anywhere. Tears came to my eyes, all the more as illness prohibits me from making the trip to his memorial What a great life, and what a great tribute.

  2. John Pullin

    Thank you so much for the wonderful memories you posted. I feel so priviged to have known and to have been influenced by this wonderful man and musician.

  3. George E. Ferguson

    As a former chorister of “Uncle Gerre” at Christ Church / Cincinnati, I HEARTILY endorse and enjoyed the words in this post.
    The writer has accurately and completely painted a picture of GH, and I could NOT agree more! Thank you!
    -GEORGE E. FERGUSON, Chorister (Ret.)

  4. Jonathan Ambrosino

    Neil, this tribute to Gerre is simply gorgeous. It speaks to that kind of discipleship that exists outside the formal teacher-student relationship, when someone is so great and persuasive and giving that one cannot help but absorb some of that spirit and example, and be inspired by it.

  5. christopher babcock

    This is tremendous Neal. Thank you so, so much! (I was headed to hear him in St. Louis when I got the news which I then had to share with Dr. Wallace.) It does seem like “the lights have gone out” even now.

    • George Bang

      Glad that wonderful picture has taken on a life of its own!

      What a wonderful article, Neal. You summarized the life of a type of man both rare and necessary: the man who was both good AND great. Thank you so much.

      george w bang

      On Mon, Jan 22, 2018 at 10:13 AM, Neal Campbell–Words and Pictures. wrote:

      > christopher babcock commented: “This is tremendous Neal. Thank you so, so > much! (I was headed to hear him in St. Louis when I got the news which I > then had to share with Dr. Wallace.) It does seem like “the lights have > gone out” even now.” >

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