Betty G. Hocker

Betty G. Hocker (Baltimore Sun / June 17, 2005)

Betty G. Hocker, a retired Baltimore opera singer and composer who wrote the "Fort McHenry March" at the time of the nation's bicentennial, died Saturday of complications from dementia at Stella Maris Hospice.

The longtime Roland Park resident was 101.

The daughter of a businessman and a homemaker, Sara Elizabeth "Betty" Gumpper was born into a musical family in Butler, Pa. Her father played the banjo and piano and had a small band, while her mother also played the piano and sang.

She was raised in Butler and was valedictorian of her 1928 graduating class at Butler High School.

"She was also voted Most Popular Girl," said a daughter, Barbara Simmons of Towson. "For her entire life, she always had a beautiful smile for everyone and kind words of encouragement or appreciation, and helped whenever she could."

Mrs. Hocker came to Baltimore and enrolled at the Peabody Conservatory, where she studied voice, cello, harp and piano.

By the early 1930s, Mrs. Hocker, a soprano, was performing with the Baltimore Music Club, writing "delightful original scores, both words and music for their many theatrical and musical programs," said Mrs. Simmons.

For years, she was also a stalwart of the Baltimore Civic Opera Company, under the direction of Eugene Martinet, where she handled numerous roles in productions that included "La Traviata," "Othello" and "Carmen."

When she was singing the role of Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet," Mr. Martinet sent her onstage even though she had not rehearsed with the whole company. Mrs. Hocker proved she could hold her own.

"Oh, I managed all right," she told a Baltimore Sun reporter in a 2007 interview.

During World War II, she played piano at the YMCA in downtown Baltimore, and was the soprano soloist at Wilson Memorial Church for years until 1945, when she joined Grace United Methodist Church.

"I came to Grace in September 1958, and she was in the choir then. I never heard her sing solo, but she had a very lovely voice," said Bruce R. Eicher, the church's longtime organist, who said that Mrs. Hocker had always "been very supportive of me."

He added: "She was beautiful to look at and was just a beautiful lady."

In addition to singing, Mrs. Hocker was a composer of religious hymns, many of which were played in Baltimore churches.

"Her religious compositions are right from the heart," said Mr. Eicher, who said that her hymn, "Jesus, My Jesus," was to be performed at her private funeral. "The text was by a former Grace pastor."

In the early 1970s, she was reading a book about the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812 and was inspired to compose the "Fort McHenry March."

"If it hadn't been for Fort McHenry, we'd all be Englishmen," she told The Baltimore Sun in the 2007 article.

After finishing it, she asked her friend, Leigh Martinet, whose father was the opera director and who was then conducting the Baltimore Municipal Band, to orchestrate the piece so his band could perform it.

Its debut came on July 12, 1973, at the old Memorial Stadium, after an enthusiastic crowd had just finished singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Oddly enough, while the march joined the Municipal Band's repertoire, it didn't make its way to Fort McHenry until June 30, 2007, when it was played as part of a military ceremony.