County Fare | Yo-Yo Ma pays tribute to late friend Robert Wilmers

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PITTSFIELD — Cellist Yo-Yo Ma almost met his professional match in the late Robert Wilmers.

When Ma first met the longtime CEO of M&T Bank Corp. and co-owner of New England Newspapers Inc., The Eagle's parent company, Wilmers challenged the world-renowned musician.

"'When are you going to give me a cello lesson?' he asked me," said Ma, a world-renowned musician who regularly performs at Tanglewood.

So, when it came time to teach Wilmers the basics of the cello, Ma found that his new student was serious about playing the stringed instrument.

"He is so competitive. I realized in the middle of the lesson — he wanted my job," he said.

Ma's story drew laughs from the 300 people Saturday night attending Hancock Shaker Village's annual summer gala. Ma later would play a Shaker song and selections from Johann Sebastian Bach, the music and storytelling all a tribute to his friend, whose name will live on at the living museum.

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County Fare was in attendance when President and CEO Jennifer Trainer Thompson and board of trustees member Maureen Jerome announced that the museum had created the Robert G. Wilmers Integrity Prize.

The annual $25,000 cash award will go to individuals who have exhibited "exemplary integrity" in leadership through social justice, art and architecture, design, conservation, community, music, agriculture, commerce and other fields.

"I don't know of many integrity prizes," Ma said. "There are so many people who will qualify and we don't know their names yet."

Wilmers' wife, Elisabeth Roche Wilmers, will chair the national panel that includes Ma and is scheduled to initially award the cash prize in 2020.

The Wilmerses quietly gave to charities in many communities for decades, including cultural institutions — among them Hancock Shaker Village — in Berkshire County. Since the idea for the new prize percolated two years ago, more than 75 donors, many from the banking world, contributed to its $2 million endowment. Museum officials say the goal of the Robert G. Wilmers Integrity Prize is to create awareness of and motivate integrity.

County Fare, a weekly column featuring "tales from throughout the Berkshires," is compiled by Eagle staffers.


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