Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

A Denis Hammerton Moment

(re-posted from my Facebook profile, February 23, 2009)


I don’t expect to post a whole lot of things in this space having to do with family; no skeletons in the closet that I know of, but I do wish to respect various people’s privacy. If they want to reveal private family stuff, they can blog too!

Today would have been my Dad’s 82nd birthday. He passed away seven years ago this May. He’d had a heart attack eight years prior to that one; so we all had time, and inspiration, to make sure everybody knew what everybody thought of everybody else, and very little was left unsaid, and we were all very comfortable with the fact that I was his favorite son (he only had one) and he was my favorite Dad (I only had one) (but of all the Dads on Earth…).

Two years ago, on what would have been his eightieth birthday, I posted an item as a Facebook note – it was basically what I presented at his memorial service – and I’d like to include it here. Pretty often I hear myself say something or say it a certain way, or frequently I hear someone else describing a memory of my father that just further convinces me that even after we’re gone, if we’re lucky and we’ve done it right, we’ll continue to have an effect on other people. If you ever met my Dad, even just once, you probably have at least one Denis Hammerton Moment similar to the ones I mention below . . . and it most likely makes you grin and chuckle. May we all have the kind of effect he had on the world. Read on!…

Henry David Thoreau said: ‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears . . .”

When I’ve tried to describe my father to people, I’ve sometimes tried to boil it down to a few short words, or a sentence. Those who know me know that brevity is not always one of my strongest suits. My dad compounded that difficulty by managing to be many, many things … not merely a chemical engineer, not merely a curious and quirky Englishman trapped in America, not merely a great father and husband. He made it very tough to put his life story on a bumper sticker.

The Denis Hammerton stories that have come forward in the last couple of weeks – many of which I had never heard before – reveal a man who didn’t do giant-sized things for people with the intention of putting them on a billboard and pointing and saying ‘look what I done’. He did small things for individuals: a staggering number of them.

“‘What goes around, comes around’ is a phrase that applies to good deeds in life, too. I think Dad would be startled to realize just how beloved he really was – he really didn’t think too hard about that. A few of my memories of him may serve to give you an idea of why I thought he was so great.

A man with a PhD in chemical engineering no doubt would enjoy seeing his son excel in math or science. Alas! … after about sixth grade, those subjects and I were no longer close friends. Some fathers would bemoan this situation, mumble something regretful about who’s going to carry on the flame … but not Dad. I think he understood very well that I LIKED science and math just fine; I just wasn’t real GOOD at them. And he made it clear that he was fully in favor of whatever subject or pursuit about which I DID feel successful, and would help in whatever way he could.

Mark Twain (a bust of whom sits on top of our piano at home, and somehow I suspect that was DAD’S idea) said this: ‘Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.’

So I credit my Dad with opening my eyes to some important truths about the subject in which I now make my living – music. Now, understand: my father claimed to be not particularly musical. [He] would have you believe that the nuns at the convent school kicked him out of the school band because they’d had him playing second woodblock and he couldn’t cut it.

One Sunday when I was about 10, our church organist fired up the organ and began to play a hymn. We stood; we began to sing. And the thought suddenly occurred to me as I listened to what Dad was singing … ‘that’s not exactly the melody, is it?’ … ‘but it works!’ As it turned out, this was the [air quotes] Bass Line. It was my revelation that those notes that looked like the piano music that I never practiced enough … could be sung at the same time as the tune everybody else was singing. And it would work. . . . Is it too much to suggest that his manner, his peculiar modes of expression, mirrored that idea? All of my friends who met my Dad thought the world of him, and most thought he was just a wee bit odd; and liked him that much more because of that.

All my life, [as both a] high school music teacher and college band director, my parents have made it a point to be at as many of my performances as they could, be they concerts or football games or whatever. (Dad called the sport of AMERICAN football ‘heaps of men’. Similarly, he called ice hockey ‘heaps of men on skates’.) And at the appropriate moment, probably at the beginning of the third quarter, I would take great pleasure in making sure my students knew who they were looking at, wearing that bulky and rather loud winter down coat and the furry hat. That’s my Dad. I’m 37 years old; my parents come to my games. … Once a band parent, always a band parent.

Not long after Dad passed away, I sent out an email to friends of mine who had known him, or even just met him once or twice. My friend Heidi Sarver, with whom I was drum major at UMass a few years ago [laughter] … and who is now the director of the University of Delaware marching band … passed that information on to basically all of our summer band clinic colleagues, which I thought was very kind indeed. It was something she would have done in any case. [It turns out] she must have forwarded that note even further, because early this week I received a card from Courtney Moore. Who? Courtney Moore, the card explained, was a member of the Delaware Band. We had never met. She certainly had never met my father. But she had been told of his passing, and wanted to let my family know that we were in her prayers.

Baseball great Jackie Robinson said this: ‘A man’s life is only worth how much he impacts other people’s lives.’

If a man’s life is in fact to be judged on how much he impacts other people’s lives, Denis Hammerton shapes up to be one of the worthiest men I can think of. I only have to look at how he affected my life to know THAT.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote this: ‘To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.’”


February 23, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. What a lovely and loving tribute to your Dad! I only met him once or twice, but his humor and his kindness were unforgettable!

    Comment by Mary | February 23, 2011 | Reply

  2. I agree with Mary. I also found your father’s wit enjoyable. It was definitely from England, but not far at all from that of NEW England old-style Yankees. Not a little of that wit was passed on to his son. Great piece, and a wonderful tribute to a father.

    Comment by David | February 24, 2011 | Reply

  3. I’m incredibly biased, since he was my dad, too, but I do believe Rob has penned an incredibly accurate portrayal of our father. (Jello and candied fruit story to follow… Pool divider Halloween story, too… “Like your mask” supermarket cashier story… Fall over sideways into the ocean story…Oh, yeah, church pew pencil puller story – classic)!

    Comment by Kristin | March 5, 2011 | Reply

  4. […] up saying in the eulogizing talk that I gave at that memorial service, and what I would go on to write in a couple of online spaces in the time since then, was […]

    Pingback by Steady On « Editorial License | May 4, 2014 | Reply

  5. […] background, go read the item that I read at my Dad’s memorial service. I’ll be here when you get […]

    Pingback by The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Twenty-Eight: Lacrimosa « Editorial License | May 28, 2016 | Reply

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