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Bradley Hilltopics

Summer 2007 • Volume 13, Issue 3

Jerry Hadley

Jerry Hadley, right.

View Jerry Hadley ’74 performing at Bradley University’s Salute to Bob Michel. The September 1994 event was held in Washington, D.C. Go>

Reprinted with permission of the Journal Star, as appeared in the July 15 editions of the newspaper.

He embodies the spirit of the Midwest

Jerry Hadley's feet always have been planted in the Midwest, where he grew up and where he has often returned.

by Gary Panetta

The piano begins softly, a little like morning light stealing its way over an Illinois cornfield.

There is just a breath of a pause. Then comes a mournful yet dignified tenor voice - as mournful and dignified as the generations of hands that have struggled to wrest a life from the soil and seed of the Illinois prairies:

Bury this old Illinois farmer with respect.

He slept the Illinois nights of his life after days of work in Illinois cornfields.

Now he goes on a long sleep.

The wind he listened to in the cornsilk and the tassels, the wind that combed his red beard zero mornings when the snow lay white on the yellow ears in the bushel basket at the corncrib,

The same wind will now blow over the place here where his hands must dream of Illinois corn.

The words and spirit are all Carl Sandburg's. But they may as well belong to Jerry Hadley, the man who sang them after a friend set them to music, the man who remains, at the hour of this writing, on life support after shooting himself.

For Hadley is, quintessentially, a man of the Midwest. He has stood on many stages in his 55 years of living and performing: Milan's La Scala, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. Yet his feet always have been planted in the Midwest, where he grew up and where he has often returned: To Manlius, his hometown, to give benefit performances for Bureau County High School; to Peoria's Civic Center, where he has performed with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra; to Bradley University, his alma mater, where he recently offered a commencement address.

Bradley has been an especially a dear place to him. He had always kept his mentors, former faculty members John and Ann Davis, updated and informed about his various doings. A few years before he died, John Davis would show a visitor a box of postcards, letters, little notes that he had received from his former student. Sometimes scrawled just before performance or at intermission, they were a chronicle of a young man on the make, snapshots of a career's trajectory, ascending to heights few artists will ever know.

Yet no matter how high he has gone, his feet have remained in the earthy soil of the Midwest - in the earthy soil of the Illinois farm where he grew up, where, as a child, he once sat at the feet of his old Italian-speaking great-grandfather, who would play old opera records for him, planting seeds that would bloom years later at Bradley.

For Hadley had inherited a dual heritage: German and English on his father's side of the family, people who liked all kinds of music; Italian on his mother's side, people who loved opera. Add a third strand: post-World War II baby boom culture, a fascination with rock 'n' roll - a fascination that found fulfillment when Hadley not only recorded Paul McCartney's "Liverpool Oratorio" but also was able to privately jam with McCartney himself - in McCartney's own house, and on Elvis Presley's own guitar.

In his youth at least, the operatic impulse remained buried in Hadley. But years later, as he studied Italian at Bradley, the floodgates opened, and he not only remembered the Italian of his childhood but the dialects that relatives had spoken to him as well.

He had found his voice and his vocation, a voice and a vocation tied to the Midwest that fed his soul, fired his imagination and informed his sensibility, and which enabled him to cross so easily from classical to popular to Broadway and back again, which explained why he was able to sing in Italian or German and still somehow reach people whose first and only language remained English.

No wonder Hadley felt the pull of Carl Sandburg, whose poetry was put to music by friend and composer Daniel Steven Crafts, which Hadley so lovingly recorded in 2000 at the University of Illinois. Sandburg was, after all, not only a poet but also, like Hadley, a singer and a performer and a crowd-charmer, a Midwestern boy who looked to his own backyard to find the things that mattered everywhere, who discovered in the fields and hills of his homeland the whole world writ small.

Things just seemed to fall out of the sky for Hadley - as he himself remarked at a commencement address at Bradley three years ago. He has always had the performer's vulnerability, and the performer's trust, which enabled him, as he put it, to step back and surrender to wherever his muse might take him.

But somehow, in the end, that trust ran out. Whatever the personal demons that have pursued Hadley - clearly, clinical depression, family strife, bankruptcy, a fading voice all played a role - it proved too much for a gifted man who had too ready access to a gun.

What remains is grief for a voice that is now likely silenced forever, for the songs that will now likely remain unsung - and gratitude for what Hadley has given everyone who was lucky enough to hear him: A reminder of the poetry that is in life if we only have eyes to see it, a reminder that comes with every beautiful song, beautifully sung.

Gary A. Panetta is the fine arts columnist and a critic for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3132 or gpanetta@pjstar.com. Write to him at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643.