June 16, 2005
TributeBy Thomas Lifson
Faithful readers of this site know that I took several days away from regular posting due to a death in my family. I have struggled with issues of family privacy over the last few days, in deciding whether or not to write about my dearly departed mother in law, Margaret Baxtresser. In the end, given the fact that Margaret lived part of her life in front of the public, I have decided to share with American Thinker readers something about this most remarkable woman.
Margaret Baxtresser was quite simply one of the finest and most inspiring people I have ever known. I miss her terribly, and cannot really think of the world without her. Her life force burned with great intensity, yet she was always comfortable to be with, putting those around her at ease, bringing out their best nature. She died as she lived, full of vigor, just two days shy of her 83rd birthday, doing her 7 AM workout at the health club, the victim of a stroke.
Margaret embodied a rare combination of personal integrity, devotion to family, devotion to community, personal charm, intellectual curiosity, and artistic achievement. Although she was unquestionably a genius, Margaret was always more interested in the thoughts and insights of whoever was enjoying her company than in expressing her own views.
Almost everyone seems to have experienced Margaret in the same way I did. She was deeply and sincerely interested in what you were doing, and took the trouble to inform herself about you, and then really listen to what you were saying. This quality alone made her extraordinary. I have never met anyone with a single unkind word about her. Although she loved being with people, and they naturally confided in her, she was the opposite of a gossip. She was the very embodiment of discretion and tact.
But this is just the beginning of understanding Margaret Baxtresser. The key to her life was music. She had an extraordinary passion for beautiful music, especially the complex, mind— and soul—enlarging music of the classical repertoire. She believed that music was the universal language of mankind, and that fine music had the potential to heal the differences among us, if only we would let it work its magic. Snobbery had nothing at all to do with it. She believed and repeatedly proved that anyone could learn to enjoy the great music bequeathed to us by the ages.
She had insisted on piano lessons at the age of four, after having sat atop her father's piano as he played, and loving the music that emanated from it. Margaret first came to the public's attention when she was 13 years old, playing the Schumann Piano Concerto in her hometown of Detroit, with the Detroit Symphony accompanying her. From that auspicious debut a brilliant musical career sprang, with Margaret winning important musical honors and prizes, and playing concerts literally all over the world.
But when Margaret married her husband Earl and started having children, she devoted herself to raising her four kids. She could easily have led a glamorous life in the major cities of the world, soloing with the world's greatest orchestras and giving recitals. She proved that she could have done this, by doing all of it once her children were raised and she resumed her full time musical career. But instead, she supported her husband's management career with Goodyear, which took her and the family from Detroit to Pennsylvania to Minneapolis and ultimately to headquarters in Akron. She didn't stop playing — she couldn't ever do that. But she focused on those she loved, and put aside her potential glory to be an executive's wife and a loving mother.
Margaret and Earl had huge, warm, loving hearts. So much so, that when my wife—to—be and her younger sister (close friends of the Baxtresser kids) were orphaned, they took in two more children to raise. No drama, no hesitation, and no complaining about cramped quarters or financial strain. They just did it, and forever after treated them like their birth children. The same treatment awaited those of us who married their sons and daughters.
She was particularly renowned as an interpreter of Debussy's lyrical piano music, its romantic tone pictures seeming to flow effortlessly from her soul directly into your heart. The French regarded her as something of an ambassador for the glory of French music, and invited her to official functions with regularity. She always made the most difficult music appear to be utterly effortless. But she practiced every single day, working to find the way to make the complex muscular control flow naturally.
When the United States and Vietnam resumed normal relations, Margaret was the first American artist invited to perform in Vietnam. What she discovered in Hanoi was that an eager audience existed for classical music, and that musicians there were striving to overcome a lack of the basics: sheet music and instruments. There was not a single complete orchestral score in the entire country. The combination of love of music and inadequate resources touched her deeply, and she made classical music in Vietnam her personal mission, scrounging donations from orchestras, publishers, and anyone else who might be able to help ensure that musicians and audiences there could slake their thirst for this great achievement of Western Civilization. She equipped Vietnam with a library of orchestral scores so that symphonies could be performed there. Her will left her extensive collection of sheet music to the Hanoi Conservatory.
When her brother, our Uncle Lee, accompanied Margaret on one of her trips to Vietnam, the family finally learned what she meant to the people there. She was far too modest to brag, so we never suspected that she was officially chauffeured in from the airport, and that a banner was hung over the main street of Hanoi, proclaiming 'Welcome to our friend, Margaret Baxtresser.' The entire political leadership of the country attended her recitals and feted her at receptions and banquets. She was the godmother of fine music in Vietnam, and they loved her almost as much as we did.
Although Margaret was a political liberal, politics never, ever came between us. Her interests were above politics, in the realm of the heart and soul. She knew about my politics, and I knew about hers. None of it mattered.
Margaret was also a natural teacher. She became a professor of music at Kent State University near Akron, and for thirty—plus years developed the talents of others, producing a legion of devoted musicians. A number of them, extraordinary virtuosos, dropped everything and rushed to Akron to play in tribute to Margaret at a memorial service which drew hundreds to listen to moving performances of her favorite music.
Margaret was also devoted to improving her community. She was so organized that her son Robbie joked about her not just having lists of things to do, but lists of lists. It might not have been a joke, actually. Almost everything that happened in the world of classic music in Akron had her as the essential sparkplug. She maintained what can only be called a 'salon' in the highest sense of the word, opening her house to visiting musicians, and hosting frequent gatherings of music lovers, ranging from elementary school kids learning about music to world famous musicians visiting Akron or nearby Cleveland for concerts.
In Akron, the city where she and her late husband Earl made their home for the past four decades, Margaret's passing was a major cultural event. The classical music radio station broadcast a tribute program, and posted audio files for two interviews to its website, accessible here. The Akron Beacon—Journal devoted four articles and a Sunday edition editorial to her loss, and its significance for the citizens of the region. If you are willing to undergo the registration process for the website, you can read more about her here, here, here, and here.
We are all mortal, and death is the natural end awaiting all of us. Margaret's death was not a tragedy, but rather merely the end to a life very well lived. But there is a huge sense of loss among those of us left behind. The world is a much poorer place for her passing.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.