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.
Advancing years didn't seem to slow Mrs. Hocker down musically.
"She was still composing well into her 90s," said Mr. Eicher.
Mrs. Hocker counted among her close musical friends Metropolitan Opera diva Rosa Ponselle, with whom she spent Christmases, and Helen Avalynne Tawes, wife of Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes. Mrs. Tawes was a Peabody graduate and sang and played the electric organ.
Mrs. Hocker was also active for many years with the Opera Ball Committee of the Baltimore Civic Opera.
"She was a patron of the arts and supported the Baltimore Opera Guild and the Three Arts Club of Homeland. Music was her big love, and it was in everything she did," said Katherine "Kitty" Allen, who grew up across the alley from Mrs. Hocker's home in Roland Park and attended school with one of her daughters.
"Even her voice had a certain lilt. You could tell that she was a singer," recalled Mrs. Allen. "She was always beautifully dressed — she favored bright pastels — and always had her hair done."
Mrs. Hocker later moved from her Woodlawn Road home to the Mercy Ridge retirement community in Timonium, where she played the organ for ecumenical church services each week.
Mrs. Hocker enjoyed spending summers at a second home on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach., Del., and writing poetry.
Her husband of 54 years, George H. Hocker Sr., who had been an adviser to Governor Tawes and later owned the Hocker Realty and Investment Co., died in 1985.
"Next to my religion, I think [music] was the greatest thing I could have had in my life," Mrs. Hocker said in the 2007 newspaper interview. "I just love music."
Private services were planned.
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Hocker is survived by a son, George H. Hocker Jr. of Towson; another daughter, Carole Hocker of Timonium; a foster daughter, Irene Li of Hong Kong; a brother, John W. Gumpper of Butler, Pa.; two sisters, Evelynita Illsley of Santa Rosa, Calif., and Katherine Louise Myers of Dallas; 11 grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun