Lawson Hager, 78, led the band, played his horn and inspired young musicians

Lawson Hager directing the Cowboy Band. The longtime Hardin-Simmons music faculty member died Nov. 19. He was 78.
Lawson Hager directing the Cowboy Band. The longtime Hardin-Simmons music faculty member died Nov. 19. He was 78.

A member of the World Famous Cowboys Band, Lawson Hager eventually directed the one-of-a-kind musical group.

He later taught brass students and for years played the French horn with the Abilene Philharmonic.

Born in Stamford and raised in small towns, he enjoyed fishing.

Lawson James Hager Jr., 78, died Nov. 19 in Abilene.

A "celebration of life" service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Pioneer Drive Baptist Church, where he and wife, Jane, attended.

"Absolutely one of the nicest men that I've ever come across, and one of my biggest supporters when I came back in 2018," said Bill Harden, the current director of bands at HSU. Principally a bassoon player, Harden was a student at HSU from 1982-86, when Hager taught brass and music theory. Harden was in the Cowboy Band and also bassoonist in the symphony when Hager was the horn principal.

"He'd stop by on occasion just to see how I was doing," Harden said of seeing Hager back in the Cowboy Band hall. "I will miss that."

Harden added that post-Thanksgiving, he will discuss a possible endowment to fund a music scholarship in Hager's name.

Two to remember

Musical highlights for Hager included taking the Cowboy Band by bus to Washington, D.C. , in January 1977 for the inauguration of Jimmy Carter as president.

Mark Smith, who was in the band at the time, recalled that the Secret Service had its doubts about the band, "world famous" or not.

The musicians were not allowed to interact with those lining the streets, which was a crowd favorite when they marched in parades.

More importantly, they could not perform their signature "cow step."

Perhaps it was because that slowed the parade.

Smith said the band literally jogged the two-mile route on a cold day wearing boots. The cow step, while a showstopper, also gave them time to catch their breaths. But not that day.

Smith, who said he played "whatever they needed" as an instrument (clarinet in the Cowboy Band, oboe in the orchestra and saxophone in the jazz band), said the band enjoyed what likely remains a great memory for all. But Hager also made sure they knew the responsibility that came with it, presenting HSU, Abilene and Texas.

"There weren't a lot of high jinks on that particular trip," Smith said. "It was pretty momentous. We knew what we were doing.

"We had a really good relationship," said Smith, adding he was a sophomore when Hager arrived and had entered into leadership roles. "He looked to me for help in establishing a rapport with the guys. For the next four years, we were really good friends. Back then, the whole thing was about respect.

"We had fun doing stuff but we never did anything (that would) paint a bad image."

In 1980, Hager and choral instructor Lloyd Hawthorne joined eight others, including two students, on a trip to Saudi Arabia for that country's second music festival. A Reporter-News story noted the group was not allowed to travel to Mecca, but they did journey from the city to work with the children who were to perform.

The group's charge in Saudi Arabia was to prepare about 600 students from Dhahran and that area for the event. Their adventure was paid for by Aramco, the country's oil company.

"They treated us royally," Hawthorne recalled. The faculty members performed while Hager and Hawthorne was in band and school choir ensembles, respectively.

"It was a big, big extravaganza."

He said some students were flown to Dhahran and then back home by the oil company.

"Lawson and I were (at HSU) about the same time, so we shared a lot of experiences," Hawthorne said. They didn't agree as colleagues all the time, but they didn't let that affect their friendship or professional relationship.

"We shared experiences on behalf of our students and on behalf of the school of music," Hawthorne said. "The most important thing is that anything that needed to be done at any time, Lawson was willing to be in the forefront doing it and getting it done. He was always pleasant and always looking for the best for his students. And as the dean, looking out for the very best and most positive for the School of Music.

"He was well-loved, well-respected, a fine Christian gentleman."

Smith agreed.

"Lawson was a Godly man. He was very moral and raised his family that way," he said. "Jane is such a jewel. We just loved that family."

Coming to HSU

A graduate of Abernathy High School, Hager came to HSU to play in the Cowboy Band, graduating in 1967 with a degree in horn performance. That year, he married Jane Dennis. Their marriage in August reached 55 years.

Before his music career could begin, he served from 1967-69 in the Army, including in Vietnam where he was a quartermaster.

After his military service, he attained a master's degree in music from then-North Texas State University.

Hager returned to Abilene in 1973 to become the third director of bands at HSU. With that assignment, the Hagers, with three daughters - Heather, Emily and Holly - added a lot of boys to the family. That earned them the nicknames of Boss and Mom.

In 1982, Hager became assistant professor of brass and music theory. He taught until 2002, when he was named the dean of the School of Music and Fine Arts. He retired in 2011.

He was not all about music. Hager coached youth sports teams and also knew how to build a good fence.

The Abilene Garden Club once honored him with its Yard of the Month award.

'Being the best he could be'

Musician and Philharmonic member Jim Jones recalled the time when the Abilene symphony was full of local musicians, which provided opportunities for college faculty members to know each other.

Lawson Hager was accomplished French horn player and played for many years with the Abilene Philharmonic.
Lawson Hager was accomplished French horn player and played for many years with the Abilene Philharmonic.

An example of that musical camaraderie came in December 1976, when Hager was invited to perform with McMurry's Concert Band for its Christmas program. He was a soloist on French horn.

"It is probably a better orchestra these days," Jones said, "but it's not nearly the community orchestra it once was."

Hager was featured in the Reporter-News in October 1980, when he was to perform key parts in a piece by 20th century composer Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. No matter how well he played that night, he likely was overshadowed. The guest artist was opera singer Jerome Hines of the Metropolitan Opera.

Jones said his wife, Nancy, would watch the Hager's eldest daughter, Heather, and Jane Hager later watched the Joneses' son.

"Their youngest daughter and our daughter were good friends," he said. His daughter, Sarah, who was a few years younger, called Holly Hager "Holly She's 8."

Jones treasures the family-to-family relationship.

Jones said that when Hager was unable to play music anymore, "that was a tough time for him because that was so much a part of his life. Not just teaching but playing."

Thinking back, Jones said Hager "definitely had his serious side. But his sense of humor was good. As he grew older, he didn't take himself as seriously."

Except when he wasn't fishing.

"He would get into fishing and he was serious about it," Jones said, laughing. "Anything he started to do, he wanted to figure out how to be good at it. He approached everything that way.

"When he stopped being the band director, he centered his attention on being the best brass teacher he could. When he was dean of the School of Music, he was always advocating for the school.

"Something about him drove him to being the best he could. "

This article originally appeared on Abilene Reporter-News: Hager, 78, led the band, played his horn, inspired young musicians