Charles Hayes ’77: Persevere and be excellent

Charles Thomas Hayes ’77 had high expectations of himself when he arrived on the Cornell campus from Chicago.

Charles Thomas Hayes '77
Charles Thomas Hayes ’77

“As an African American kid growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, we were taught we had to strive over 100% in order to be successful and to be respected. This was coupled with the ethic of carrying ourselves with dignity,” he said. “Carrying that mantra, when I was given the option of majoring in music education, concentrating in instrumental or vocal education, of course I did both.”

Hayes studied piano with Professor Julian Bern and voice with Anne Swedish Moses, sang in the concert and chamber choirs, played piano in orchestra, and participated in jazz band as a trumpeter and vocalist. It was Hayes who renamed the former Madrigal Singers the Chamber Singers and lobbied for participation to qualify as academic credit. Hayes also worked as one of the main piano accompanists, as co-stage manager for the music department, and as choral and instrumental music librarian, a position he shared with his roommate of four years, Pat Flaherty ’77. Their friendship endures to this day.

He says he loved the campus atmosphere and small town Mount Vernon and felt very little racial tension.

“I was an unusual person because I grew up having many positive experiences with people of various cultures and ethnic backgrounds. So, when I arrived at Cornell, there was no shock of being absent from my childhood community. I focused on music and friends. When you’re in music, that can encompass your life. I could surround myself with music 24-7.” 

After graduation, Hayes received a master’s degree from the University of Iowa and commenced a teaching career. He’s currently in his third year as coordinator of choral, vocal, and piano studies at Simmons College of Kentucky, a historically Black college in Louisville.

Hayes is in his eighth year as director of music at University Church, Chicago, in addition to his 29th year as founder and artistic music director of the Chatham Choral Ensemble. He also directs a community choir on Chicago’s northside, and plays piano for another.

Hayes follows the Cornell College Office of Intercultural Life on Facebook and was impressed to catch their weekly Power Hour show, a livestream dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

If Hayes were on campus today, he would tell students who identify as Black, Indigenous, Latin@, and other people of color, to “open your mind to being exposed to other things, but be true to yourself. Part of your going there is to foster awareness of the African American experience. Be proud of your identity and share it freely. Don’t allow yourself to be disrespected. Persevere and always work to be excellent. And don’t be afraid to come to Black alumni. Embrace your village; the older adults.”