Noel Hammatt, best known for the 16 years he served on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, died Friday afternoon at age 62 after a short bout with brain cancer.
During Hammatt’s tenure on the board, the school district passed its first school construction tax in 29 years and finally resolved school desegregation litigation that divided Baton Rouge for 51 years.
His wife, Terri, said Noel went in for brain surgery on July 20 to remove a tumor. It turned out to be glioblastoma IV, for which there is no cure. He could have prolonged his life by a few months with chemotherapy and radiation, but Noel wasn’t having it.
“He thought that was silly and said, ‘I’m going to Florida to the beach,’” his wife recalled.
Immediately after high school, the Baton Rouge native joined the U.S. Army and served overseas. In April 1979, Noel met Terri in a youth hostel in Switzerland. Barely a year later, they were married.
“It was love at first sight,” she said. “Noel was so unique and kind. We also had a lot of common interests.”
In 1984, the couple returned from overseas and moved to Baton Rouge. They never left.
Hammatt first ran for School Board in 1994 as part of an initiative called Community Action for Public Education. CAPE capitalized on public dissatisfaction with the school system to replace nine of the board’s 12 members.
Hammatt had multiple windows into public education. He’d spent two years as a social studies teacher at Kenilworth Middle School, before becoming an instructor at LSU, where he taught a variety of education courses for almost two decades. Also, Terri taught French in the school system and their two children, Jennie and Jim, attended public schools.
“Noel saw many issues in public education, and he wanted to be in a position where he could actually influence what was going on,” Terri said.
Hammatt, a Republican who became a Democrat late in life, found himself increasingly at odds with the education reformers with whom he’d been more in tune with when he joined the board. They divided particularly over charter schools, and what Hammatt viewed as their negative financial and educational impact on other public schools.
“Speaking truth to power, he did that, and he lost a lot because of that,” Terri said.
The School Board was a continual flashpoint for controversy. He made enemies in his own district when he voted with the rest of the board in 2009 to close his alma mater, Lee High, which was in danger of state takeover. It later reopened, but the political damage was done.
In 2010, Hammatt lost a bid for a fifth term by a three-to-one margin, losing to fellow Lee High graduate Barbara Freiberg. It was a “trouncing” he admitted at the time: “I have a message that is very complex and offends a lot of people.”
After leaving the board, Hammatt became an independent education researcher and continued to speak out on a range of issues for several years. Through the Kiwanis club, he raised money to buy books for elementary children to take home and start home libraries. More recently, though, he’d withdrawn from the public eye as his health declined.
One thing that he never stopped doing, and something for which he is well known, is tree work. It was a skill he learned growing up.
“From the time he was two years old, he was hanging out in trees,” Terri said.
He continued that work almost until the very end: “Three weeks ago, he took down his last four trees,” Terri said.
Terri said she admired her husband’s even in death: “You can experience the end of life and do it your own way, and that's what he did.”