Walter “Walt” Darrell Haden, served as professor of English at The University of Tennessee at Martin for nearly 40 years. He was a man of many talents and interests, which filled his life and the lives of those who had the opportunity to know him.
Born, July 6, 1931 in Smallett, Mo., he would later refer to himself, “a Missourian by birth and upbringing.” He was the first of the four children of Etcyle DeWitt and Thelma Eleline (Osborn) Haden. In eulogizing his mother, he would say: “She taught me to sing” – a love and talent that would abide as an essential trait of his personality for the rest of his life.
Haden’s artistic side came to light early. At about the age of 8 he produced imaginary radio programs that were “broadcast” from the family’s barn to his younger siblings, Loren and Kathryn.
While in elementary school, his teachers struggled to keep him supplied with paper, sometimes using rolls of wallpaper, for his prodigious production of drawings and daily comic strips. He wrote the first of his over 800 songs when he was 16.
Haden, after graduating from Ava High School in 1950, attended The University of Missouri at Columbia. The following year, he transferred to Southwest Missouri State College in Springfield. He also worked as a part time early morning announcer at KICK Radio in Springfield. He left his sophomore year early from SMS to serve in the United States Army during the Korean War, 1952-54. During his service as sergeant first class, he became the first station manager for the United States Forces Radio Service at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Upon completion of his military service, he returned to Smallett and taught fifth through eighth grades at Walnut Grove School. During the Thanksgiving holiday in 1954, Darrell was introduced to his future wife, Betty Jean Ellie, from Coleman, Wisc. Their romance developed through correspondence, and they married the following year in Pound, Wisc.
In 1956 Haden returned to SMS. While working as a late night announcer at KWTO radio in Springfield, he met a range of performers: Red Foley, Smiley Burnette, Porter Wagoner, Brenda Lee and many others. In 1958 he received his bachelor of science degree in education.
From 1957 – 1966 he was an instructor of English at Rock Falls and Sterling High Schools in Illinois. When Haden taught at Sterling High School, he became an assistant debate team coach on this campus. He was a part time radio announcer at WSDR in Sterling and would entertain his audience with recordings from his collection. While in Sterling, he advanced his education with a master of science degree in education at Northern Illinois University in 1964.
In 1966 Haden was hired to teach undergraduate students as an assistant professor at Belmont College in Nashville, Tenn. A year later he began teaching English and folklore at the University of Tennessee at Martin for the next 40 years. A recipient of The Excellence in Teaching Award, he was often quoted as telling his English students such things as, “A sentence fragment is a child at the fair, lost temporarily from its family. The structure to which it belongs is very likely nearby, in front or behind.” It was at UT Martin that he established a program of folk studies and taught a similar course for The Governor’s School in Tennessee Studies at East Tennessee State University. Extending his teaching range even further, he taught for a year as visiting professor of English at Niijima College in Takasaki, Japan, and fulfilled a teaching assignment in England.
In 1991 UTM awarded him his professorship in English and at retirement, professor emeritus. In truth, his pursuit and love of education and music never ended. He took graduate courses in English at Illinois State Normal University, Purdue University and Vanderbilt University.
Elected to membership in The Nashville Songwriters Association, Haden wrote more than 40 songs for Columbia, Decca, Liberty and other labels that were recorded by country artists such as Red Sovine and John Hartford. He also had his own hit album, “All the Late News from the Courthouse”, and toured with his band, “The Courthouse Gang” for The Grand Ole Opry and other “package” shows. His longtime friend, Red Sovine, wrote that he not only had “the highest respect for his many talents” but that his music “represents the heart of America singing the love of God and Country, along with good ole, good time fun.”
A recognized authority on and biographer of, the first country music artist, Vernon Dalhart, Haden wrote articles on that subject for such national publications as The Country Music Encyclopedia, Pictorial History of Country Music, Country Music Who’s Who, Stars of Country Music and Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal. From 1976 – 1986 he hosted a number of live radio variety programs on several Kentucky and Tennessee radio stations, in particular NPR Radio affiliate WKMS, with his weekly show named T.H.I.S (Thank Heavens! It’s Saturday).
His poetry was published in The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, Springfield Daily News, Springfield (MO) Leader and Press, Colorado Springs Free Press, Towers Magazine and even in Japanese newspapers and magazines. His prose was published in The Tennessee Philological Journal, The White River Valley Historical Journal, The Secret Place and the Douglas County Herald, while his political cartoons were often found on the editorial pages of The Union City Daily Messenger.
Haden wrote novels as well as a book concerning Ozark folklore from the place of his birth, “The Headless Cobbler of Smallett Cave – the origin and growth of a Douglas County, Missouri, legend.” He would later write that as a child: “Chimney corner stories about the Headless Cobbler of Smallett Cave kept me deliciously frightened on many a dark night”, since he lived “(o)nly a mile from the cave” and “went to bed reluctantly, and then not to sleep” because “(m)ore than once I thought I heard the far-off ‘tack-tack-tacking’ of the old shoemaker’s hammer… The storytellers succeeded in keeping me out of the cave, but they could not keep the cave out of me.” Almost 50 years after its 1967 publication, this book, long out of print, still appears on Internet sites dedicated to collectible books and is a cited resource for current academic studies of Ozark folklore.
Examples of his community participation include not only the hosting of an annual art show at his South Fulton farm, but also founding and producing the annual Big Free Spring Sing at UT Martin as well as folk festivals in Kentucky and Tennessee. Haden served as president of the Obion County Historical Society, Jackson Purchase Historical Society and Tennessee Folklore Society as well as chairman of the Folk Arts Panel for The Tennessee Arts Commission. Haden was a member of The Douglas County Historical Society and Missouri Philological Association. He also was the publisher and editor of the literary journal New Ground, editor of the Jackson Purchase Historical Society Journal and Britt, associate editor of the Shakespeare journal The Upstart Crow, and member of the editorial board for the Tennessee Poetry Journal. He was a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. Haden was a frequent speaker and performer at many area community service organizations too numerous to list and for years hosted UT Martin’s annual Madrigal Feast as “The Lord of Misrule.”
His awards and recognitions included WLMS-NPR Service Award, Award for Service from Niijima College in Takasaki, Japan and Jefferson Award Nominee.
After suffering a stroke in November of 2008, Haden’s condition slowly deteriorated until he passed away at the age of 83, after a short physical illness, on Oct. 28, 2014. On Nov. 4, 2014, he was interred at Spring Creek Cemetery near his birthplace in Smallett, among many of his ancestors and next to his daughter, Suzanne, who preceded him in death on Sept. 5, 2000.
His loved ones remember him as a generous man, the family historian, leader of songs, fount of knowledge and center of the room even when he was silent.
As Haden wrote in his poem “One Dark Night.” “… our fathers, Long buried, yet their shadows bending to ours, Speaking all one common tongue: Sometime this night between the dead and cold awaking,… I’ve missed you boy. Where have you been? My God, it’s been a long dark night.”
He is survived by his wife, Betty; his son, Joel and daughter-in-law Julie Haden, of Knoxville, Tenn.; his daughter, Natalya and son-in-law Jack Cody, of Paducah, Ky.; his brother, Loren and sister-in-law Delveta Haden, of Springfield, Mo.; sister Venita and brother-in-law Leo Day, of Nixa, Mo.; and grandchildren, Isabella Haden and Owen Cody.