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Hank Mann: Farewell, Great Heart

It is impossible for any obituary, or even for a book length biography to contain the sum of a man. That is certainly true of Horace “Hank” Mann, who died this week, less than a month short of his 89th birthday.

The litany of Hank’s officially documented accomplishments is impressive, and without question, his death from a heart attack on November 18th, marks the end of an era. Hank was a SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of exceptional education at Buffalo State. He joined the college in 1953 as the director of the Exceptional Children Education Division. He was a generous supporter of the college, and maintained an office there, up to the time of his death. Indeed, he was the college’s single largest individual donor, with gifts that included two $1 million planned gifts, made in September 2001 and September 2002. He attended campus events right up until the week he died.

“Under his leadership, the undergraduate and graduate programs in exceptional education at Buffalo State rose to prominence and became among the largest in the United States,” according to a statement released by the college. “Dr. Mann also served as president of the New York State Federation of Chapters of the Council for Exceptional Children, an organization from which he received several honors. His national and international service earned him many additional honors, including the 1996 Burton Blatt Humanitarian Award, the 1998 Distinguished Educator Award of the American Association on Mental Retardation, and, in 1997, the SUNY honorary doctorate of humane letters.”

By the time he retired in 1992, Hank had helped educate more than 7,000 exceptional education teachers. He loomed large in the community and was an important part of the lives of many people, mine included.

Hank was among the first people I met when I originally came to Buffalo in 1980. We were introduced in the back yard of Neal Du Brock’s house on North Street. Neal had recently been ousted as the executive producer of Studio Arena Theatre, where his pioneering reign brought the theater into a period of national prominence. I was at the house for an afternoon cocktail party, invited along with my boyfriend at the time, a close friend of both Neal and Hank.

Because I was entirely new to town, my boyfriend had to fill me in on the personal backgrounds of multiple people in attendance—I’ve always had a good memory for such things. What the guests had in common was that we were all gay men—it was a kind of gathering far more common in 1980 than it is today. Hank and Neal, I was told, had been lovers, but the relationship was, by then, long over.

At that same house, I would eventually meet the great Jose Quintero, the definitive interpreter of the plays of Eugene O’Neill. I would also meet Blossom Cohan, one of the great friends of my life, who was, at that time, still the publicist for Studio Arena. Now they are all gone.

I remember Hank, on that first meeting, for his irascible and rascally sense of humor. He sought to embarrass me with gentle but good-natured teasing. He was delighted when I dished it back. I remember how, even when he was surrounded by old friends, Hank took an interest in the new person, me.

Of course, on that day, 30 years ago, I could never have anticipated that Hank would become such an important figure in my life. In time, he would become an important friend. I would never make a major career decision without consulting him, and even now, as I consider choices, his is one of the voices I hear in my head. I suspect I always will. But back in 1980, I was 22 years old, and had been “out” as a gay man for only a year. Going from college life in New England to “the real world” of my life in Buffalo was an abrupt transition. I had never had older gay friends, men to serve as friends and mentors. In Buffalo, I found a wide network of such people.

Many of Hank’s unofficial accomplishments fall into this realm of unwritten history. Announcements of his death certainly and appropriately reported his “distinguished service during World War II as a bombardier navigator, during which time he earned a Purple Heart,” and that he began his education career in 1947 in New York City teaching children with developmental disabilities in the city’s public schools. Nowhere, however, does the official history report that without Hank, there might never have been a golden age of Studio Arena Theatre, for Neal Du Brock came to Buffalo specifically to be with Hank Mann. The two had met while taking out the garbage behind Du Brock’s mother’s home in California. A romance ensued.

The official story also does not record that the Donald Savage Theater and Communication Building at Buffalo State was named in honor of Donald Savage, another gay man of that generation, specifically at the request of his friend and colleague, Hank Mann, who felt that Don’s accomplishments as a teacher deserved such recognition.

Hank told me many stories about growing up gay in New York City. I always noted that he had a talent for putting a positive spin on everything—almost. In one story, he and a gay friend of northern European ancestry with a fair complexion and blond hair unexpectedly ran into Hank’s father while gallivanting around town. Hank was obliged to introduce his friend, who immediately and uncontrollably blushed a bright red that flushed to his cheeks like blooming roses. Later, when Hank went home, his suspicious parents were waiting for him in a fury, and demanded an accounting. “That boy who was with you,” began his father in accusatory tones. “He was wearing rouge!” Hank laughed uproariously.

In making his financial gifts to Buffalo State, “Hank said that the college had given him intellectual and emotional enrichments, and that he wanted to return those gifts. In thanking him for his generosity, former college president Dr. Muriel Howard said, ‘In addition to his legacy in exceptional education, he continues to teach us, by example, what a human being should be.’”

It bears mention that he also provided a model for what a gay man could be. The lives and careers of that generation of gay men, working at Buffalo State in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, were far different from the lives those of us who navigate that path today. We are well aware, however, that we benefit from their accomplishments, and that we live through their example.

I will miss Hank’s unannounced visits to my office, where he would bolt through the door without knocking to say, “Hello, Tony Baloney,” and seat himself for the next half hour or more. I will miss the envelopes of articles that I simply “had to read,” that would be certain to follow these visits. I will try, for the rest of my life, to hold as much of the wisdom he shared in my head as I can. He was a kind man and a great one, and like so many other people, I will miss him.