In memoriam: Dr. Rolland “Woody” Hurst

Dr. Rolland “Woody” Hurst

Dr. Rolland “Woody” Hurst, professor emeritus in the Department of Music, was born on August 24, 1932, in Burlington, NC and passed away on January 16, 2023, in Coeur d’Alene, ID. 

“Music is in my blood,” Hurst once spoke to a close friend. 

Hurst, known for his rich bass-baritone voice, was a professor of music at Fresno State from 1968 until his retirement in 1984. During that time, he was director of the Opera Workshop, Music Theater Workshop, Concert Choir, Jazz Choir, Men’s Chorus, and Women’s Chorus. He also taught courses in applied voice, guitar, piano, music theater history, opera repertory and choral arranging. 

Dr. Rolland “Woody” Hurst
Dr. Rolland “Woody” Hurst

“He was my ‘musical papa’ and taught me all I know about performance and singing,” said Earl Myers, Fresno State alumnus.

”My deepest condolences for the passing of Dr. Woody Hurst. His kind soul, his deep spirit, brilliant mind and beautiful voice will be cherished forever. He will join the many beloved music professors in the Heaven Hall of Fame, “ said Edna Garabedian, mezzo-soprano and colleague of Hurst.

“An amazing man. I’m thankful to have had him in my life,” said Richard “Dick” Kindley, Fresno State alumnus.

Hurst was active in the local music scene performing with the Fresno Opera Association and Fresno Community Theater. 

“In a lifetime of over 90 years, you have many unusual experiences—at least one or two unusual experiences!” Hurst said shortly before he died.

Woody and his older brother Jim spent their childhood in Chattanooga, TN. His father, Alfred, was a pastor from a long line of circuit riders and preachers in the South, and his mother, Ruth, was a skilled musician and loving homemaker. 

“His first school, Missionary Ridge Elementary, was on a hill, so daily hikes gave him time to talk to God and develop a strong dependence on him, not to mention healthy lungs! It’s no wonder Woody could sustain a note for miles!” said Jeanne McPherson, Hurst’s daughter. “He learned to play piano, violin, trombone and guitar. From an early age, music was woven into his soul.”

A devoted student, Woody attended Alice Deal Junior High School and Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. and was active in sports, music, and ministry. He was elected to the National Honor Society and graduated Salutatorian. He dedicated his life to full-time Christian service and planned to become an engineer and missionary to China.

At Grinnell College in Iowa, Hurst studied pre-engineering physics. There he met his first wife, Patty Keagy, a gifted musician who persuaded him to join the band which needed a trombonist. He switched his major and graduated with Honors in Music Education and Performance. He got his Master of Music in Voice and Opera at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, where his daughter Jeanne was born. He and his family moved to Long Island, NY, and they were blessed with their second daughter Linda. After moving again to Rutherford, NJ, their daughter Becky and son Allen were added to the family. 

“He was a great storyteller, and his children and grandchildren have wonderful memories of his off-the-cuff bedtime stories, especially ‘Mr. Tears.’” said McPherson.

Before his tenure at Fresno State, Hurst spent ten years in New York City as a highly acclaimed professional singer and actor. His roles on Broadway included “Unsinkable Molly Brown” with Tammy Grimes and Harve Presnell (1960-1962), “We Take the Town” (1962), and “Hello Dolly” with Carol Channing and Ginger Rogers (1964-1970). He was a bass soloist in live performances, recordings, and international tours with Robert Shaw Chorale, New York Philharmonic, American Opera Society, Long Island Opera Company, Turnau Opera Company, and others. He also performed in Carnegie Hall with the world premiere of “Joseph and His Brothers” in the title role of Joseph. In addition, he had leading roles in off-Broadway and summer stock productions. His film credits included “Voice of Firestone,” “Lamp Unto My Feet,” “Telephone Hour,” “Cry of Angels,” “The Swimmer” with Burt Lancaster and “The Star” with Julie Andrews. While at Fresno State, he composed the music for the national award-winning play “Liberty Dance of Henry Sparrow.” 

“Unfortunately, Woody’s first marriage failed, but God is a God of second chances. He was blessed with a second marriage to Shirley Davis, a talented pianist and organist with two children, son Max and daughter Jan,” McPherson said in his obituary. 

Shirley went with him to Scotland, where he sang as listeners were stunned at the seven-second echo in the Edinburgh Cathedral. They also lived among the Amish in Pennsylvania, where he taught music at Millersville University for a year before returning to Fresno.

Hurst retired to Hayden, ID, to be near family. Still, he remained a prolific composer and an active performer. He also stayed active in family, church and community events. In 2021, he returned to Fresno to co-direct and perform in the California Arts Academy production of “Norma.”

Hurst was preceded in crossing over by his father, mother, brother, sister-in-law Nan, first wife Patty, and second wife Shirley. He is survived by his children Jeanne, Linda, Becky, Allen, Max, Jan and their spouses, grandchildren and their spouses, great-grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and all those who were “adopted” into his family.

Jeanne Marie McPherson contributed to this story.

Posted by

Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities Communication Specialist

One thought on “In memoriam: Dr. Rolland “Woody” Hurst

  1. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15)

    A memorial celebration of his life will be June 17, 2023, at 3:00 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 521 E Lakeside Ave, Coeur d’Alene, ID 83814.


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