Dr. John Hanners, an educator, author, historian, playwright, actor and horseman, died of cancer May 18, 2014, at his home in Commerce. He was 68.
Hanners was a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University-Commerce. He retired in May 2012 after teaching there 20 years; he spent 17 years as chair of the Department of Mass Media, Communications and Theater. Before that, he spent 13 years as a professor and department chair at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. He had also taught high school.
The British-born, Illinois-reared professor made a mark academically, but he also was well-known and respected in other realms. The Air Force veteran was president of the board of directors of the Audie Murphy/American Cotton Museum in Greenville, and was also a co-founder of the Texas Theater Journal. A son of a librarian, his love of books spanned a lifetime and he served on the Friends of the Commerce Public Library Board.
He lived a life devoted to finding truth, whether it be what motivated Shakespeare’s Henry V (a role he played on stage) or investigating the sensational 1936 murder trial of Velma Patterson, a Commerce woman who was accused of poisoning her two small children. Her trial made headlines across the country, and she was acquitted. He was writing a book on her at the time of his death.
His 1993 book, “’It Was Play or Starve’: Acting in the Nineteenth-Century American Popular Theater,” detailed the early days of the nation’s theater. He wrote more than two dozen book essays on subjects ranging from baseball to showboats to the origins of tap-dancing. He also contributed numerous biographical essays on figures ranging from football great Roosevelt “Rosey” Greer to baseball All-Star Boog Powell to three-time world champion boxer Tony Canzoneri. He authored 15 scholarly articles and 15 refereed scholarly papers presented at national, state and regional conferences. He had served on the Board of Editors for the publication Film Criticism and was an associate editor of the Mid-Atlantic Almanack.
It was the stage that fueled his creativity, though, and he was active in all aspects of theater. Ten of his plays were produced and in his time at the University Playhouse, he directed 15 plays. Hanners’ roles in front of the stage lights were also varied. He appeared in eight professional productions at Fort Worth’s Circle Theater and the Dallas Hub Theater.
Hanners was born Sept. 28, 1945, in Piccotts End, England, the son of the late Deon and Ruth Hanners. His father served in the U.S. Army Air Corps’ Eighth Air Force and his mother worked in a local hospital. After the war, the family settled in Deon’s hometown of Casey, Illinois. Hanners was a 1963 graduate of Casey High School.
He served four years in the Air Force, attaining the rank of sergeant. It was while serving at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Oregon, that he met his wife, Lou. They were married in 1968. After being honorably discharged from the service, Hanners attended Eastern Illinois University and graduated with a B.S. in Education With Highest Honor. He earned a master’s degree from Indiana State University. After working as a theater instructor and assistant varsity football coach at Griffith High School in Indiana, he enrolled at Michigan State University and earned his PhD. During his time in Michigan, he acted with the Michigan Performing Arts Company.
From 1979 to 1992, he taught at Allegheny College, beginning as an assistant professor. He became a professor in 1986 and was named chair of the Department of Communication Arts/Theater.
In 1992, he was named professor and head of the Department of Mass Media, Communication and Theater at what was then called East Texas State University. He spent 17 years as department chair before giving up the position in 2009 to return to teaching full time. He served on a variety of committees at the university and in the Texas A&M System.
“Between the time that John retired as department head and finally retired as a faculty person he was a fantastically terrific resource to me and it was a great comfort for me to be able to walk down the hall a few steps and ask his advice, which I frequently did,” Hanners’ successor, Dr. John Mark Dempsey, told the Commerce Journal in September 2012 on the occasion of Hanners being named a professor emeritus.
Living in Commerce also allowed Hanners and his wife to engage in their beloved pastime of keeping horses.
Hanners is survived by his wife, Lou; a daughter, Lisa (Scott) Hanners Cuppett, of Rockwall; a son, Michael (Natasha Wyndham) of Dallas; a brother, David (Sharon Jernigan) of St. Paul, Minnesota; and four grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by his parents, Deon and Ruth Hanners.
Services are pending at Markwell Funeral Home in Casey, Illinois.
Visit and sign the guest book at www.heraldbanner.com.
Published on  May 27, 2014