Sam Hagan, whose tenor voice enriched Atlanta’s musical life, is dead

Hagan sang opera, taught biology, visited national parks tirelessly
Sam Hagan, a retired biology teacher and a dedicated home improver, built a second career as a vocalist. Here he glances at a piece of music he would sing in the 40th annual “Messiah” presented at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Sam Hagan, a retired biology teacher and a dedicated home improver, built a second career as a vocalist. Here he glances at a piece of music he would sing in the 40th annual “Messiah” presented at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

The voice that for decades sounded the beginning of the Christmas season to Atlanta church-goers is still.

That voice belonged to Sam Hagan. Accomplished in opera, Hagan performed with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Opera; he sang at Maynard Jackson’s inauguration and cantored a mass for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

But many Atlantans will remember him best as a soloist in the annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. For 40 years, Hagan’s pure tenor was the first voice the congregation heard, at the beginning of the great oratorio.

Sam Hagan was the cantor at St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church in Sandy Springs for years. Here he sings as members take communion. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

It was not Advent, said members of the congregation, until they heard Sam sing.

Hagan died suddenly Sunday of a heart attack at his East Lake home. He was 81.

Despite his age, and seemingly successful treatment for prostate cancer in 2019, he was still in good physical condition and had been working outdoors that afternoon.

His wife of 50 years, Martha “Marti” Hagan, returned from a visit with friends to find the unconscious Sam in the back yard, a long-handled pick still in his hands.

Martha Ellis and Sam Hagan married in 1974 at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. The pastor there, Dr. Harry Fifield, “had to jump through many hoops to get us married,” because of their racial difference, said Sam. “We didn’t know he had to jump through hoops until he published his memoirs,” said Marti. (family photo)

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A memorial service will be held in the fall.

Hagan grew up in modest circumstances. His family of five shared a one-bedroom duplex in Vine City and his mother did domestic work. But he excelled in school and won a scholarship to Clark College. At Clark he did well enough to win a grant to study biochemistry at Emory University. He also earned a master’s degree at Georgia State University.

The young man was hired to teach biology at Westminster Schools and later at Atlanta Metropolitan State College. He enjoyed a long teaching career, but his heart was in music. Even as a graduate student at Emory, he sang with the Southern Regional Opera Company and then with the Atlanta Opera.

In 1973 Sam met Marti in upstate New York, where she managed a regional opera company, the Lake George Opera. Sam was booked for summer performances of “Tosca” and “Rigoletto” at Lake George. When she heard his voice, Marti said, she was “smitten.”

Some were opposed the interracial romance, but not Marti’s parents. “My mother was in love (with Sam)” she said. Marti and Sam married five months later.

When the Hagans bought a house in the East Lake community in 1974, the area was riddled with crime and the housing inventory was run down. After closing on a 1939 fixer-upper for $25,000, Sam spent the next 50 years transforming the structure, tripling the size, adding bedrooms, a kitchen and a three-story wing. He worked alone, using his own two hands.

Today, following the 1990s renovation of the historic East Lake Golf Club, the neighborhood boasts million-dollar homes and is a leafy enclave.

Hagan has had a steady second career singing in churches and temples, often as the cantor, leading the congregations in musical responses. But his spiritual fulfillment, he told the AJC in 2015, came from being in mountains, deserts, and wild areas. “That’s as much of the spirit as I need,” he said.

The Hagans did not have children, and were dedicated travelers, especially to national parks. They have visited almost every one, plus many state parks and wildlife recreation areas.

Marti Ellis and Sam Hagan traveled throughout the U.S.  and abroad, usually seeking out natural settings. Here they are in Death Valley, California. Photo: Sam Hagan

Credit: courtesy Sam and Marti Hagan

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Credit: courtesy Sam and Marti Hagan

On these visits into the natural world, Sam indulged yet another of his fascinations, wildlife photography. He risked being chased by bears to get photos of the Aurora Borealis in Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and he dealt with frozen feet in order to see sandhill cranes in flight at sunrise near the North Platte River.

An unassuming musician Sam Hagan had a strong impact on those who heard him sing, whether in sacred or secular settings.

In 2015 Arlan Sunnarborg, the former music director at St. Luke’s, told the AJC that Sam’s voice was a blessing to the staff as well as to the congregation. Sunnarborg said that it’s difficult sometimes to escape that “thinking-ahead, taking-charge frame of mind,” for a staff member to do his own worshipping.

“But,” he added, “in that moment when Sam begins to sing, he becomes my minister and my cup gets filled, and it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. For a moment he breathes those words to life and they find a place not just in my heart but in the hearts of many.”

Sam is survived by his wife, Martha Hagan; his sister Mary Ann Blossomgame; brothers-in-law Jimmie Smith and Marcellus McKeever; a sister-in-law Dr. Sharon Cregier; nephews and nieces and grand-nephews, and grand-nieces. He was preceded in death by his sisters Carolyn McKeever and Marjorie Smith.