Betty Joanne Tormoehlen Lawson
1933 - 2017
Betty Lawson, a featured artist on Chapel Records, was a talented mezzo-soprano and choir director who enjoyed a long career as a soloist giving concerts and lyceum programs at high schools and Seventh-day Adventist academies and colleges. She was a featured soloist with numerous choirs in productions of oratorios and other major choral works.
Betty was born in Portland, Oregon, on June 3, 1933, the only child of Fredrick Horstman and Mabel Ida Mae Waller Tormoehlen. Her mother was a singer who had studied at the Toronto Conservatory of Music and briefly been an opera singer in the Chicago Opera. After moving back to Portland, she had married and when Betty was five had joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She taught voice lessons and was the first singer to be featured on the Quiet Hour.
Betty started piano lessons at age eight and later studied organ with Margaret Holden-Rippey. When Mark Daniels, a singer from the Chicago Opera and an acquaintance of her mother, moved to Portland, she studied voice with him, beginning at age fifteen and continuing through her college years. She attended Portland Union Academy, now Portland Adventist Academy, and graduated from there in 1950.
After enrolling at Walla Walla College, now University, she continued voice study in Portland on the advice of Clarence Dortch, choir director at the college. She sang in his choirs and was a frequent featured soloist with his groups. Dortch was an important figure in her life, recalled by her as a spiritual mentor. A history major and music minor, she gave a junior recital at the college and was frequently featured as a recitalist in the Portland area during that time. She married Harold Gene Lawson, a physician she had met on a blind date, December 13, 1953, and did not complete a degree at WWC.
After spending a year in Hawaii in 1957, where she sang in some shows and with the Honolulu Symphony, the Lawsons moved to California and settled in Ukiah at which time she studied with Gladys Steel in San Francisco for five years. She also studied for two years with Robert Weede, a friend of her mother from her Chicago Opera days and later a noted Broadway singer. Although it was expected that his students be associated with the San Francisco Opera, he made an exception for her.
When the Lawsons returned to Hawaii in 1967, she stopped singing in shows but continued to sing in oratorios. She conducted choirs in churches when needed, a practice she had started when her husband had served earlier in the U.S. Army. She also led the Samoan Gospel Heralds, an all-male chorus, in Hawaii for 25 years. They dedicated a number, "Once I Stood," to her from Through the Years, a CD album they released in 2010.
In spite of the fact that she was raising three children from her husband's first marriage, one from their marriage, and later four hanai (foster) children, Lawson remained active as a singer and conductor during these years and also gave voice lessons, something she had started after her marriage. She continued to do so in subsequent years and maintained a teaching studio. One of her stepsons, John, though not a career musician, has been active in music for many years as a singer and conductor, mostly in the Portland, Oregon, area.
Lawson was a recording artist with Chapel Records in the 1960s, when she recorded three Records. On one of these albums, O, Come, Immanuel, released in 1963, the Meistersingers, directed by Dean Friedrich, and the George Wargo Symphonette accompanied her. She also recorded Come My People in 1962 and Come Unto Me, Ye Weary in 1968 and was later featured in a compilation Chapel Records recording with other artists.
In lyceum programs given at SDA academies and colleges in the 1960s, she performed mostly sacred works but would also on occasion do operatic arias and some numbers from light opera. In the 1970s she was featured as a soloist in a Faith for Today telecast.
At age 63, she became ill and following her recovery, though unable to sing, continued to give voice lessons.The Lawsons were living in Loma Linda, California, at the time of Harold's death on May 3, 2011. Betty was living there when she died on August 27, 2017, at age 84.
Sources: Interview Betty Lawson, interview by Dan Shultz, September 2011, a primary source; Chapel Record Liners; North Pacific Union Gleaner articles in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; other online sources. Email from her son,Terry, August 31, 2017.