Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History
Hairston, Jester, 1901-2000
|Jester Hairston (1901-2000), A1929, H1972, was a talented musician, composer, and actor who appeared in such films as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and, most recently, "Being John Malkovich."|
Hairston was born on July 9, 1901 in Belews Creek, North Carolina. His family soon moved to Pennsylvania, and Hairston spent his childhood outside of Pittsburgh. During high school, he worked in a brickyard to earn money for college, finally matriculating at the Massachusetts Agricultural School, now UMASS/Amherst, to study landscape architecture. After one year of schooling, Hairston realized he could not afford to go back. He moved to Boston, and for the next five years, he worked winters hauling coal, and waited tables on a Boston to York passenger boat during the summer. In 1926, Hairston was able to go back to Amherst, and it would be there that his singing talent would change the direction of his life. A local school teacher and choral accompanist named Anna Laura Kidder recognized Hairston's talent, and offered to loan him enough money to complete his education. Hairston applied to Tufts to study music, but was rejected. That summer, he met a 1927 Tufts graduate, who suggested that Hairston meet with Tufts music professor Leo Lewis. Hairston auditioned for Lewis on the front porch of Lewis' Professors Row home, and was immediately accepted to Tufts. After one semester, his singing talent earned him a full scholarship for the rest of his Tufts years.
After graduating in 1929, Hairston moved to New York City, where he spent two years at Juilliard before entering the workforce. After Juilliard, Hairston joined the Howell Johnson Negro Choir and developed a strong interest in spirituals. Soon, he was assistant director of the choir, and led the group on a trip to Hollywood to search out film roles. After auditioning for a few films, Hairston was hired to arrange the music and conduct the choir for the soundtrack of Dmitri Tiomkin's film "Lost Horizons." This film would jumpstart Hairston's career. He went on to write scores for numerous films, even composing a spiritual for use in the film "Lilies of the Field." In that film, Hairston's dubbed voice can be heard singing his song "Amen" while Sidney Poitier lip synchs.
Hairston also found success as an actor. For sixteen years, he was the voice of Leroy on Amos 'N' Andy, and he played a native in eight of the ten Tarzan films. Hairston also portrayed Brock Peters' father in "To Kill a Mockingbird," and acted in a number of John Wayne films. Most recently, Hairston appeared in the critically praised film "Being John Malkovich."
Hairston also gained fame for his work with the African American community. He traveled in the United States directing choirs, and was sent to Europe by the State Department twice, in 1961 and 1963, to instruct foreign groups in performing American folk songs. In 1965, he spent six months in Africa teaching children involved in different choirs. In recognition of his service to the country and to the world, Tufts University presented Hairston with an honorary degree in 1972, and with the Distinguished Service Award in 1990.
Hairston died of natural causes on January 18, 2000.