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Rocky Mount -
On the 26th day of October, 2023, Emily Baker Hyatt died peacefully in her sleep at home on Hammond St. in Rocky Mount. Emily was the only child of Katherine Jones and Russell Howard Baker of Rocky Mount. She is survived by her husband Robert P. Hyatt and their three children; Katherine Creekmore of Ketchum, Idaho; Victoria Sowers (husband Ronald Sowers) of Nashville NC; Russell Hyatt (wife Pamela C. Hyatt) of Bradenton Fla.; two grandchildren, Samantha Johnson (husband, Jared Johnson) and Ryan Hyatt (wife, Ashlynn M. Hyatt) and a great grandson, Baker Doyle Johnson all of Bradenton, Fla.; a sister and brother in law, Theresa and Joseph Cotten of Lenoir City, Tenn.; four nieces and two nephews.
From childhood the performing arts were a hallmark of Emily’s life. By the age of four she had regular weekly instruction in piano and dance (ballet) which continued into her undergraduate days at Salem College. Prior to entering college, she studied piano in New York with the prospect of a professional concert career.
At Salem College she began as a music major eventually switching to Drama and English as her primary interest. In the summer of 1953 she joined the cast of North Carolina’s newest outdoor drama, Unto These Hills, as a dancer and costumer. That same summer she met Robert Hyatt, a fellow cast member, who would become her husband in 1956.
During her time as a cast member Emily continued daily piano practice and entertained fellow cast members with both piano and dance performances, including duo performances with the company music director and the company choreographer. Very importantly while at Cherokee she took weaving lessons taught by a member of the faculty of Cherokee High School and learned how to operate a floor model four harness hand loom.
Upon her return to Salem College in 1953 Emily became an outstanding student seizing opportunities for leadership in the arts inspired by her drama mentor Elizabeth Reigner, MA. Northwestern, and increasingly interested in teaching inspired by education and psychology courses with Elizabeth Welch, PhD. UNC Chapel Hill. Teaching would prove to be the other leitmotif of Emily’s life.
By the time she graduated in 1956 Emily had choreographed four major student productions including the annual May Day celebration which she also directed. In her senior year Emily originated, choreographed and directed the first ever student-faculty “Follies” music and dance production. At the same time she did student teaching at Winston Salem’s Gray High School (later the site of the North Carolina School of the Arts which would figure large in her future) where she directed a high school drama production which entered a statewide competition at UNC Chapel Hill winning second place for best high school dramatic production. In both her junior and senior years Emily received Salem’s most prestigious honor, the order of the Scorpion.
In the summer of 1955 Emily returned to Cherokee as a cast member of Unto These Hills where resumed her longstanding friendship with Robert Hyatt to whom she became engaged. After completing her senior year at Salem College in 1956 she and Hyatt were married in late August in time for her to accompany him to New Haven, Connecticut and begin teaching fifth grade in Hamden Elementary School just north of New Haven During the summer of 1957 Emily and her husband were co-leaders of a summer service project for college students at Dorthea Dix mental hospital in Raleigh NC. Their first child Katherine was born in April 1958.
Upon Hyatt’s graduation in June from Yale Divinity School, Emily and Katherine returned with him to Durham, North Carolina where he had accepted a position as Associate Chaplain at Duke University. Emily turned her attention to hand loom weaving which she had learned earlier in Cherokee and to the building of a house which she had designed while living in New Haven. In November 1960 their daughter Victoria was born. In the summer of 1962 Emily joined her husband as co-leader of a summer service project in Nicaragua for Duke students.
In 1963 Emily returned to teaching in a most unusual setting: the pediatric ward of Duke Hospital. With the financial assistance and advice of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans and Dr. Susan Dees, Emily developed the first in hospital public elementary-high school program in North Carolina. Emily was lead teacher in the School for the next five years. Meanwhile she continued to develop her skills as a weaver including weaving an altar cloth for the newly formed Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill where she and her husband were members and where she also took organ lessons taught by the minister’s wife Pearl Seymour. In September 1966 Emily and Robert’s son Russell was born.
In 1968 the Hyatts moved to Winston Salem where Robert accepted the position of Dean of Students at the newly formed (1966) North Carolina School of the Arts. In Winston Salem Emily began to teach piano to private students and opened a craft shop in Clemmons just west of Winston Salem where the Hyatts lived. Her shop specialized in pottery from Seagrove NC and her own weavings. During this time at her alma mater Salem College and at the Arts Center in Rocky Mount she had major showings of her weavings. She continued studying weaving during summers at the Penland School in North Carolina and Taos School of Arts in New Mexico. Also during this time Emily began collecting colonial era “barn” looms from piedmont NC and southwestern Virginia.
In 1972 Emily began teaching 5th grade in Winston Salem/Forsyth County Schools. Shortly she was invited to join the staff in central office
to assist with the identification and placement of special education students under new Federal guidelines mandating equal education opportunities for special needs students. Within a few months the WS/FC system was invited to join a national consortium of five systems from across the Nation including Seattle and Philadelphia in a John D. Rockefeller 3rd sponsored program of Arts in Education. Emily was asked to head the Winston Salem delegation.
Over the next two years she and select members of the education staff traveled to each of the sites to become familiar with the JDR arts in education concept and to begin preparations at each site to integrate performing artists into public school settings. Due to the proximity of the North Carolina School of the Arts Emily was in a position to draw from their faculty and students as a readymade performing arts resource.
In October 1977 when Robert became General Manager of The Lost Colony outdoor drama Emily and family moved to Manteo NC. Emily accepted a position as General Manager of the Lost Colony Craft Shop. A year later the Dare County Board of Education asked Emily to become Director of Special Education for the County School System, a position she held for the next six years.
During summers Emily established the first ever Lost Colony Summer Arts Camp for Dare County students with instruction by members of the faculty of the North Carolina School of the Arts and other State Arts Council artists from the region. The highlight of this camp was a jointly developed faculty- student puppet show comedy for children featuring hand built puppets of the “mouse” family which had “stowed away” on the ill-fated trip of the colonists from England to Roanoke Island.
Emily’s arts interests didn’t stop there. In the summer of 1980 she produced and directed a summer theatre production of the Broadway show Anything Goes in the Shell Theatre at the George Crocker retail business center in Nags Head. For the production Emily recruited actors from throughout North Carolina. The theatre continued thereafter for several seasons featuring a well-received magic show, surfing movies and special events.
In 1985 Emily accepted a position with the State Department of Public Education in Raleigh. This position involved traveling throughout the State auditing State and Federal funds allocated to local school systems for the education of special needs children.
Emily and her husband moved to Nash County into an 1820s colonial home near Castalia NC which they moved and restored and from which Emily commuted to work in Raleigh. Although she was quite busy with her auditing duties, Emily found time to convert out buildings on her father’s farm in Spring Hope into a weaving business using four colonial “barn” looms and employing local residents to weave rugs which were advertised and sold nationally. Emily retired in 1995.
Retirement gave Emily the time to fulfill a long held vision teaching young children about weaving. She and her husband converted a turn of the century farm house, which they moved from a nearby farm to their restored colonial home, into a living museum of colonial weaving complete with 200 year old barn looms which she had collected through the years. Named for a creek bounding their property Emily called the enterprise Sandy Creek Weavers. Employing local Nash County residents and her daughter Katherine to assist her, she set up field trips for local school children to engage in demonstrations of colonial era spinning, dyeing and weaving. Each child was given a unique opportunity to sit at a loom and weave a few strands of dyed cotton fiber.
The colonial weaving venture didn’t stop there. Emily conceived the idea of transporting a disassembled barn loom to a local elementary school, reassembling it, and over a week’s time giving each child in the school an opportunity to “beat” a few strands into the weaving while instructing them on the economics and history of home life in colonial times. The idea caught on rapidly. Within two years the North Carolina State Arts Council began to include Emily in their roster of artists eligible to receive grants through local schools. This move required Emily to develop very specific educational objectives for integrating colonial weaving with the entire elementary school curriculum especially math, science, language arts and history. In this unprecedented project the twin themes of her professional and personal life, arts and education, were indissolubly united.
Building on this base it occurred to Emily that the approach she had taken could be extended not only to students but could become a unifying force for the entire school including students, faculty, and support personnel by focusing throughout the week on the creation of a weaving whose theme would be “weaving our history” in which each person would bring an item of sentimental value to be woven into the fabric of a wall hanging which would remain at the school as a reminder of their life together in that place, a fabric time capsule. This idea was wildly successful and schools in other states began to request Emily to bring her unique arts in education program into their schools. Soon she was working in schools throughout the Southeast. Based on this experience it occurred to Emily institutions other than schools might be interested in the “weaving our history” part of her venture.
Again Emily had struck a responsive chord. In the next few years she received invitations from as far away as Tampa, Florida to bring her hand pegged barn loom into community centers, hospitals, city government offices, etc. leaving behind colorful nine foot long wall hangings full of valued personal items from staff members in remembrance of their “history” in that place and time. Notable in this regard was an invitation from the Rocky Mount Arts Center to weave their history into a series of hangings which incorporated parts of old costumes, show ads, and other memorabilia. These pieces were hung in the spiral stairway of the former “Tank” theatre only to be rescued by boat during rising waters from Hurricane Floyd which made the “Tank” unusable.
January 2006 Rocky Mount opened their new arts center in the renovated building of the former Imperial Tobacco Company. Not long after the opening Emily was invited to set up two of her looms and conduct a weaving residency in the new arts center. With her daughter Victoria and granddaughter Samantha, both of whom she had taught to weave, Emily presented three generations of weavers. Increasingly her daughter Victoria had begun to assist Emily as she conducted arts residencies in schools and other venues. Gradually Emily “passed the torch” to Victoria who has continued Emily’s vision of “arts in education”.
In 2003 Emily and her husband moved into a new home near Cherokee NC which was built from a plan Emily had seen thirty years earlier, redesigned as a weaving studio by her daughter Katherine who also supervised the construction. Immediately Emily set up three of her barn looms and resumed weaving. She had hardly settled into her new studio when she was asked by the interior decorator for the owners of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville to create a large ten by twelve foot rug for a model home in the Ramble a new real estate development in Biltmore Forest.
During this time her creations had become increasingly more serious expressions of her feelings and ideas. Her sense of the direction in which our Nation was headed with the bombing of the twin towers and the US invasion of Afghanistan inspired two of her most impressive wall hangings. One was chosen by then US Representative Heath Shuler from western North Carolina to hang in his Washington DC office.
In December 2017 Emily and her husband moved back to Rocky Mount where they now live in a restored Frank Lloyd Wright inspired home by the Tar River in the same Westhaven neighborhood where Emily grew up. They attend the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd where Emily as a child had recitals in the Parrish Hall when she took piano lessons from Mrs. Frank Meadows senior.
The family will host a service to be held at 2:00 pm, Saturday, December 16, 2023 at The Church of the Good Shepherd, 231 N. Church Street, Rocky Mount, NC 27804.
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