Betty Joanne Tormoehlen Lawson
1933 - 2017
Betty Lawson, a mezzo-soprano and choir director, enjoyed a long and successful career as a soloist, giving concerts and lyceum programs at high schools and colleges and being featured with numerous choirs in productions of oratorios and other works. She has also conducted many choirs and taught lessons for many years.
Betty was born in Portland, Oregon, on June 3, 1933, the only child of Fredrick and Mabel 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 that she recalled as her 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 this time. She married Harold Gene Lawson, a physician she had met in a blind date, in December 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 with Robert Weede, a friend of her mother from her Chicago Opera days and later a noted Broadway singer, for two years. 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 still 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.
Throughout her career, Lawson was very active as a singer. Early in her career, she had sung as a soloist with The City Choir in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and, while living in Ukiah, with its Oratorio Society. While in Hawaii, she sang in the Congregational Church and St. Andrews Episcopal Cathedral, both in Honolulu; and was a soloist in oratorios presented by the Honolulu Choral Society with the Honolulu Symphony. She also did radio work for the Matson Hotels on the Interisland Network in Hawaii.
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 academies and colleges in the 1960s, she performed mostly sacred works but would also on occasion sing 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. She was living in Loma Linda, California, when she died on August 27, 2017, at age 84.
Sources: Interview with Betty Lawson, September 2011; 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.