Andrew L. Pincus: Musician, mentor, mensch

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LENOX — There are teachers. Then there are teachers who change lives.

In her best-selling memoir "Educated," Tara Westover recounts how a professor at Brigham Young University steered her away from a future with an abusive, survivalist family in rural Idaho to self-discovery and, eventually, a Ph.D. at Cambridge University. Her Mormon parents had never sent her to elementary or high school. Early on at BYU, she was baffled when her professor asked the class, "Who writes history?" She thought historians were Mormon prophets.

After studies at Harvard and Cambridge, she rephrased the question: "Who writes history? I do." She became a historian.

I have a teacher story closer to home to tell.

Fred Rogers, who was to become the beloved host of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," entered Dartmouth in 1946 wanting to study music. Put off by the all-male beer and jock scene memorialized in the movie "Animal House," he left after two years.

A wise professor named A. Kunrad Kvam steered Rogers from Dartmouth to Rollins College in Florida, where Kvam had taught. A cellist recently installed at Dartmouth to build a strong music department, Kvam said Dartmouth could not yet offer a proper music major. Rollins, he said, could.

With the change, Rogers "found a way to turn adversity to a focus on what he wanted to study and where he wanted his life to go in the future," according to Maxwell King in his 2018 biography "The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers."

How can I be sure Kvam was such a life-changer? Because he changed my life, too.

Being forgotten, except in the minds of family and those who come under their tutelage, is the fate of many inspirational teachers. You can search the internet and find only bits and pieces, for example, about A. Kunrad Kvam.

A loping Midwesterner of Norwegian descent, Arnold, as I later came to call him, studied and performed in Europe before World War II and served in the U.S. Army's secretive Office of Strategic Services during the war. He became a friend until his death in 1981, although I wish I had seen more of him.

I matriculated at Dartmouth a year after Rogers. As the current college admissions scandal shows, getting into college can be a kind of crap shoot. I think I got into an Ivy school only because it needed a southern boy to fill a quota.

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Rogers and I never crossed paths. But I, too, wanted to study music. Even more, I wanted to be a symphony conductor. Arnold cobbled together a music major for me and became my mentor. In my senior year I lived off-campus in his house with him, his wife, their two daughters and two other student boarders. We were almost family.

So when I was in limbo between graduation and induction into the Korean War army, Arnold took me along as his assistant at a summer music camp in Maine where he conducted the student-faculty orchestra. It was there, with Arnold as our good shepherd, that I met my future wife, Kate, a flutist and the camp librarian.

Knowing my ambition, Arnold put me on the podium to conduct his orchestra in a Beethoven piano concerto with the star student pianist as soloist. Despite days of study and rehearsal, in the concert performance I lost my place in the score — lost it hopelessly. It took the faculty concertmaster, sawing away madly, to bring me back in. My debut as a conductor was also my farewell concert.

Two years in the military gave time for Arnold's true lesson to sink in: I was not destined to be a conductor. I went on to become a newspaperman and, eventually, music critic.

Memories stir: Arnold at the blackboard, pointing out harmonic progressions. Arnold defending me from the strict musicologist who wanted to flunk me because I had taken issue with him in a term paper. Arnold letting me off the hook for singing badly in the town-gown chorus during Bach's B minor Mass. Arnold introducing me to Marian Anderson at the post-concert reception for her in his living room. Later on, Arnold and his two beautiful daughters, Kirsten and Ingrid, swimming with me in a pond.

A year after I left Dartmouth — three years after Fred Rogers left — Arnold followed his advice to Rogers and moved on to a more hospitable music department. He transferred to Douglass College — now part of Rutgers — in New Jersey as chairman of its department, where he remained until retirement.

For Rogers, history turned full circle. In 2002, the year before his death, he returned to Dartmouth to be honored as commencement speaker. On that occasion he declared:

"I'd like to give you all an invisible gift. A gift of a silent moment to think about those who have helped you become who you are today. Some of them may be right here now. Some may be far away. But wherever they are, if they've loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they're right inside your self."

As Mr. Rogers, he gave that invisible gift to children; now he gave it to graduates of the college that sent him away. He mentioned only an astronomy professor by name but I can't help thinking Arnold was one of those others.

For much that I have done, or probably left undone, I have Arnold to thank, or possibly, blame. Grateful, I dedicated my book "Musicians with a Mission" "to the memory of Arnold Kvam, musician, mentor, mensch."

Could any tribute be higher?

Andrew L. Pincus writes about classical music for The Eagle and is an occasional op-ed page contributor.


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