Keeping time with Hattie Buell

Photo by Sunny Kang / North by Northwestern.

Harriet “Hattie” Buell lives steps away from the Evanston campus. The 84-year-old frequents Cahn Auditorium and Pick-Staiger Concert Hall for shows, and she even keeps her Mu Phi Epsilon music sorority initiation card and graduation tassel tucked into her university diploma. As far as she’s concerned, she’s just another proud Northwestern alum, even if she graduated more than half a century ago. Talk about the Music Administration Building and the corners of her eyes will crinkle into a smile as she recalls the various music classes she took in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Mention Alice Millar Chapel and she’ll nod earnestly as she assures you that she saw it being built. Bring up the slogan “Meet me at Norris” and she’ll tell you Norris University Center was a product of the ‘70s—well after her graduation. Buell perks up at the mention of all things Northwestern. She’s a Wildcat, through and through.

Purple Runs Deep
Growing up, Buell wanted to do two things: become a music teacher and attend Northwestern.

“Two of my aunties were teachers and I wanted to pursue that,” she says. “I wanted to teach music.”

She came to Northwestern by way of Chicago State University, then known as Chicago Teachers College, a premiere institution for Chicago Public School teachers in the 1940s. As Buell puts it, “You couldn’t teach in Chicago unless you graduated from that college.”

While she pursued a Bachelor of Education degree there, her piano professor encouraged her to study music at Northwestern.

Photo by Sunny Kang / North by Northwestern.

“She told me, ‘I want you to go to Northwestern’s School of Music because it’s the finest,’” Buell says. “She was kind of my surrogate mommy. You meet people that really help you, and it was the best thing that happened to me.”

Buell spent the next 11 years studying piano, voice, choral direction, organ and music education at Northwestern, volunteering at Evanston Township High School and teaching in Chicago. She only took breaks during one-year sabbaticals which occurred every seven years. Because she only minored in music at Chicago Teachers College, she had to complete undergraduate requirements for a Bachelor of Music before pursuing her Master of Music at Northwestern.

“[Northwestern’s Associate Dean of the School of Music] Dr. George McClay told me that I could go to DePaul [University] and get a degree and graduate in one year after Chicago Teachers College. I said, ‘No, I want my degree from Northwestern,’” Buell says. “That’s why it took me 11 years, from ‘50 to ‘61.”

By the time she graduated in 1961, Buell already considered Evanston her home and Northwestern her school. After all, her sister, uncle and husband had all attended (but did not graduate from) Northwestern, and her son was enrolled in its piano preparatory department from ages 9 to 12.

She and her first husband, James Glass, moved to a house on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Lee Street shortly after their wedding and lived there for the next 10 years. She pursued her degree, he worked in advertising and their son was enrolled at ETHS. Buell has resided at the North Shore Retirement Hotel at the corner of Chicago and Davis for what will be six years this July. Even when she moved away and settled in Sun City, Ariz., from 1997 to 2007, Evanston was still on her mind.

“Arizona wasn’t intellectually stimulating the way this place is,” she says, explaining that Evanston is her home—a place she won’t leave again. “Just think about what we have here: the university, the libraries, the wonderful restaurants, the wonderful people. Aren’t they lovely? It’s a beautiful city. I just love it. I love everything about Evanston.”

A Tale of Two Cities
Buell considers herself both a Chicago native and a true Evanstonian, but she is quick to admit how much the two cities have changed—Northwestern along with them.

Northwestern’s Chicago campus now focuses on professional programs in the Feinberg School of Medicine, the Kellogg School of Management and the School of Law, only offering a limited number of undergraduate courses through the School of Continuing Studies.

In contrast, its 25-acre space was where Buell completed her undergraduate coursework and where Kellogg, which in the late 1950s was named the School of Business, offered undergraduate programs in Wieboldt Hall until 1971.

Abbott Hall, the Chicago campus dorm that Buell lived in from 1950 to 1952 while completing her undergraduate requirements, has since transitioned to graduate student housing. When its construction finished in 1940, it was the world’s tallest dorm, with 20 floors and an approximate capacity of 800 students. Despite its daunting size, Buell found Abbott Hall an enjoyable place to socialize.

“We had a wonderful second floor reception hall where you could sit. There was a huge piano and I’d go play there, and so did the boys,” she says. “I got to meet a lot of them in Abbott Hall. I had a different date every night down there.”

Rigid curfews and 1950s values meant that the Abbott Hall social scene focused less on the physical and more on companionship, says Buell. Alcohol, however, was just as much of a college norm back then as it is today.

“They’d say, ‘Would you like to have a beer with me tonight?’ But it was never a ‘I want to take you to bed’ kind of thing,” she says. “They wanted company, not sex. We’d go to the pub right down the street or to the pizza joint, have a beer and a pizza and just chat.”

Social gatherings such as these were where she met Glass, who was in the School of Business. The two remained inseparable.

“He wined and dined me beautifully and I said, ‘Rrrrr, whoopee!’” Buell says with a playful purr.

Like Chicago, the Evanston from Buell’s Northwestern days was also different. Instead of frat parties, she and her friends headed to Dempster Street or to the Club Silhouette on Howard to listen to legends like Billie Holiday and Gene Krupa, whom she calls “the drum fella.” Instead of the Internet, she relied on encyclopedias and paper books from Deering Library (which used to be the school’s main library).

By the time of her graduation in 1961, the Lakefill had yet to exist. Rules for painting the Rock had yet to be established. Elder Hall had yet to turn freshmen only. But even if the buildings are now taller and more numerous, Buell insists that Evanston has still retained its charm.

“I remember this time right after I moved back,” she says. “It was wintertime and the snow was high. I came from the swim club and was crossing the street to go to CVS. This gentleman saw me, crossed the street, came over the high snow bank, helped me find a spot where the snow wasn’t that tall and put me on the sidewalk. Polite and beautiful, he saw an old lady and helped her. And I said, ‘Wow, it hasn’t changed.’”

Photo by Sunny Kang / North by Northwestern.

The Sound of Music
Buell lights up at the piano. Watch as her fingers dance around its black and white keys, and you’ll realize that old-school chivalry isn’t the only thing that hasn’t changed. She learned to play piano by ear at age three, and if the pride with which she recalls her musical education is any indication, Northwestern has only amplified her love for the instrument.

“We had a marvelous chorus at Northwestern,” Buell says. “We even performed at [the Chicago music festival] Ravinia. [Renowned conductor] Bruno Walter even came out for Brahms’ Requiem to give us some pointers.”

Although she has since retired, Buell still accompanies weekly singalongs on the piano in the dining room of the North Shore Retirement Hotel, close to the Music Administration Building where she once practiced her assignments “for hours at a time, because they were hard work.”

Today, the singalong crowd poses a different type of demand. As soon as Buell strolls into the dining room, heads turn her way and let out collective murmurs of “Hattie’s here.” Buell’s friends at the hotel gather around the piano, singing, dancing to the beat and requesting song after song, including oldies like “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Blueberry Hill.”

“Last song, guys!” Buell calls, but the requests keep pouring in. Only after three rounds of last songs does she step away from the piano.

But the music’s still ringing.


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