Musical memories

On Saturday, Sept. 18, alumni of the Williams Octet all-male a cappella group came together with members of the community, Williams staff, the current Octet group at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Williamstown to celebrate the life of the late Warren Hunke ’42 (1920-2010). Dozens of Octet alumni joined voices to sing Warren’s old musical arrangements and to remember his amazing career. Warren Hunke played different roles in the lives of everyone present at the service; he was a musical director, jazz piano virtuoso, mentor and to everyone present, a friend.

I had the pleasure of meeting Warren during my first year at Williams. I cannot recall the details of my first encounter with him, but I remember being amazed by his vibrancy and uncanny ability to recollect facts. Throughout the year, he came to all of our concerts and always stuck around afterwards to shake our hands and give us tips. “You guys should sing some real love songs,” he would say. “Sinatra and Gershwin. Not this Backstreet Boys crap.” Starting sometime during my freshman spring, Warren and I began meeting regularly every Tuesday at the former Helen’s Place on Spring St. He used to say that being around people my age made him feel young again, and he loved to hear about what was happening in the current Octet. Class after class, we were his connection to his younger days, and he spoke of his recent Octet friends as he would of sons, always sad to see them graduate and leave Williamstown.

Most of what I know about Warren’s life came in the form of anecdotes he would recite from time to time. At 88 years of age, he could still remember the exact dates of events that happened decades ago. On occasion, he would drive me around Williamstown, pointing out houses on campus and telling me stories of a past Williams. During Warren’s time as a student, Williams was still an all-male institution, and fraternities still dominated the social life. Mostly uninterested in Greek life, Warren found passion in poetry, musical theater and in the Williams College Glee Club, which sang Williams songs at sporting events. He eventually became president of the group Glee Club, chosen for his amazing musical ability and passion for good music. He was later chosen by the music director to be part of a select group of men, an octet, who would sing at special events. The first eight were chosen for their ability to sight-read music and blend their voices. Over time, the Octet sang at galas, graduations, alumni reunions, various schools around the East Coast, on cruise ships and even in Carnegie Hall. Warren was famous for his ability to arrange without a piano, creating beautiful chords, building tension and always pleasing the crowd. His arrangements of Williams songs, traditional barbershop and hit jazz songs of the time live on today in the Williams Song Book, in performances of groups across the East Coast and, certainly, in the memories of those who sang with him first.

Like many of his graduating class, Warren served in WWII as a U.S. Air Force First Lieutenant in Europe. Upon his return, he studied at the Juilliard School and at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood under Robert Shaw. He served as Director of Music at Hackley School for 15 years, starting both a Glee Club and an Octet at the school – in fact, some of his old students were present at the service. In his time away from Williams, the College had become co-ed, and the group formerly known as the Octet had also begun accepting women, occasionally playing with instruments – they were now known as the Ephlats. Pressured by fellow alumni, Warren organized an Octet reunion concert in the early seventies. Their performance so stunned the campus that within two years the Octet reformed, keeping the name but increasing its size to allow for the performance of more contemporary songs. Just a few years later, Warren supplied his arrangements to the newly-formed Springstreeters, helping them get established as a fellow all-male a capella group.

Warren was always a selfless man and was loved by his students at Hackley School. He hosted yearly benefit concerts, delighting audiences with his singing and piano-playing, all the while raising money for a number of organizations, such as the Berkshire Food Project, the Williamstown Public Library and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic.

While his service to Williams, the Hackley School and to the many people he touched are virtues I will always associate with Warren, I will mostly miss him for his friendship, his stories and his occasional inappropriate jokes. He has touched the lives of countless people, and I am happy to have had the honor to meet him. As the Octet traditional “Parting Blessing” says: “And until we meet again / May God hold you in the palm of his hand.” Here’s to you, Warren Hunke.