In Memoriam: Bill Hagner
August 25, 2019 saw the passing of William “Bill” Hagner of Fort Myers, Florida. He was ninety-six.
Bill figured highly in the history of the Gretsch Company. He started working at Gretsch on December 1, 1941—just six days prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Having just finished high school, he answered an ad in the paper for someone to work in Gretsch’s factory at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn. Starting out as a clerk, he was told by the company’s vice president, “Someday this is going to be big company. So, if you have any interest in a career, I advise you to learn what you’re doing and stay with it.” Bill took that advice to heart.
One of Bill’s early jobs was to prepare the payroll for the factory workers. All jobs were done as “piece work” at the time, and Bill had to review and approve individual pay slips for each job. When he didn’t understand an operation that was being paid for, he’d go to the worker and say, “Explain what you’re doing to me.” In that way he eventually became knowledgeable about every operation taking place—preparing him to become plant manager down the road. He went on to become personally responsible for overseeing all Gretsch manufacturing.
During World War II, American industry turned much of its efforts toward war-related production, and Gretsch was no exception. Speaking of those days in Chet Falzerano’s book Gretsch Drums, The Legacy Of “That Great Gretsch Sound,” Bill recalled, “We manufactured musical instruments—many of which were for the government—during the day, till 5:00 p.m. Then I set up a night shift to work till 1:00 a.m. making wooden parts for gas masks.”
But Bill’s wartime tenure at Gretsch didn’t last long. Like so many members of what has been dubbed “the greatest generation,” he entered military service in January of 1943. As a member of the Army Air Force, he became a glider pilot—including over the fields of Normandy during the D-Day invasion in 1944. At the end of the war, Bill returned to work at Gretsch, where he eventually became plant manager in the Brooklyn factory.
The 1950s and early ’60s were heady days for Gretsch. Their drums were played by great jazz artists like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams, as well as by future rock stars Charlie Watts (of the Rolling Stones) and Phil Collins (of Genesis). Those drummers would visit the factory, and Bill would give them the grand tour, showing them every detail of how their drums were made.
On the guitar side, a long list of musical legends including Chet Atkins, George Harrison, Duane Eddy, Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young also cherished their Gretsch instruments. And those guitars were made under the supervision of Bill Hagner. Bill’s leadership and skills as a factory manager were critical during those boom years of the 60s (thanks to George Harrison and The Beatles) when guitar production more than tripled overnight.
In 1967 the Gretsch Company was sold to The Baldwin Piano Company, and operations were moved to Booneville, Arkansas. Bill remained with Gretsch and had plant manager and sales manager roles during his tenure with Baldwin/Gretsch. When Baldwin filed bankruptcy (it was the largest bankruptcy Wall Street had seen up to that point–a dubious distinction held until surpassed by Enron in 2002), current president Fred W. Gretsch and his wife, executive VP & CFO Dinah Gretsch, were able to buy the company back in 1984 and return it to family ownership.
In 1985 Fred Gretsch wanted to move drum-making operations out of De Queen, Arkansas and into Ridgeland, South Carolina (where the Gretsch USA drum factory is still located today). Who better to help in that effort than Bill Hagner?
Bill was living in Fort Smith, Arkansas at the time. He offered his services to help team building and in the move of both machinery and inventory. That help proved invaluable in getting the drum-making operation up and running in its new home. In fact, Bill is the only individual in the long history of Gretsch to have held key posts in Brooklyn, Arkansas, and South Carolina. And as Bill started at Gretsch shortly before Fred Gretsch Sr. retired, he also had the distinction of being the only employee who had worked for four Gretsch presidents: Fred Sr., Fred Jr., William Walter, and Fred W. Gretsch.
In tribute to Bill Hagner, Fred Gretsch says, “Bill was an innovator, a leader, and an undeniably unique character. All told, he spent fifty-eight years associated with Gretsch. His contributions over those years are a significant and unforgettable part of the Gretsch legacy. We cherish his memory, and we will truly miss him.”
Memorials in honor of Bill may be made to The Salvation Army to support music programs worldwide.