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Gunnar Schonbeck

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HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. -- Gunnar Idoff Schonbeck died peacefully, Tuesday, July 19, 2005, at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, just as the world was making plans to greet a new day. His daughter, Karin Shaw was at his side. The morning bird songs that marked his passing were a fitting tribute to a man who made such joyous music throughout his life.

Born on April 11, 1917, in Springfield Mass., he was the son of Anna W. Lackstrome and Idoff A. Schonbeck; both Swedish immigrants. The Schonbeck family was close-knit (two Schonbeck brothers married two Lackstrome sisters) and musical. Gunnar’s earliest experiences included playing in impromptu living room orchestras.

Gunnar held no degrees beyond a diploma from Springfield Technical High School. Yet at 16, he was teaching clarinet at Smith College, Mass., and was first chair clarinetist with the Smith College Orchestra and with the Springfield Symphony and Opera. Gunnar studied at the New England Conservatory with Aurilio Giorni, and in New York City with Gustave Langenuse and Bonade Polatschek. He also apprenticed with the owner of the Shumway Music Company, Springfield, Mass. and learned instrument and watch repair. Over his lifetime, Gunnar played with numerous ensembles and orchestras, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bennington Woodwind Trio, Albany and Berkshire Symphonies, and the United States Military Academy Band at West Point. Many local residents will remember Gunnar plucking a nine-foot banjo that he designed and built, with the Sage City Six and the Terrible Trio. He taught at many schools and colleges. This list includes The Putney School, Wellesley College, the Longy School of Music, MIT, Harvard and Middlebury College.

In 1945, Gunnar was invited by Bennington College Professor George Finckel to “come on up” to Bennington. There were some “things happening (he) might be interested in.” Gunnar was indeed “interested”; enough so that he quickly accepted a teaching position at Bennington College, where he inspired many for more than half a century. On June 20, 1961, Gunnar married musician, performer and Bennington College graduate, Gail Rodier. For the next 44 years, they raised three daughters, supported one another’s endeavors, and loved each other dearly.

Incredibly charismatic and personable, Gunnar made each person he came into contact with feel uniquely important. Gunnar also believed that music is for everyone. He designed and built an extensive collection of one-of-a-kind instruments and then led groups of people with wide ranges of ability and experience in playing them together. He introduced several generations of local young people to the joys of making music together: giving individual lessons and leading small groups of would be music makers at the Saturday morning music sessions in North Bennington. With his wife, Gail, daughter, Katy, and other local musicians he formed small ensembles of clarinets, brasses, mandolins and woodwinds, that played together regularly. He helped to organize the Pioneer Valley School and Symphony and the Bennington Music Guild. His work involved a range of community organizations including United Counseling Services, Vermont Arts Exchange, Bennington Senior Citizens Center, Vermont Veterans Home and the Girl Scouts. He was an active member of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences for many years.

Gunnar served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, the Victory Medal and the American Theater Campaign Ribbon.

Besides his wife, Gunnar is survived by his daughters, Karin Shaw, Katy Watson and Amy Leeseman; sons-in-law, Craig Watson and Charles Leeseman; grandchildren, Stephanie Shaw, Christine Curis, Kyle Watson, Sarah Leeseman, Vanessa Leeseman and Molly Watson; brother-in-law Stanley Pfeffer; sister-in-law Christine Pfeffer of Miami, Fla.; and several nieces and nephews.

Gunnar was predeceased by his parents and sister.

He will be surely missed and dearly remembered by many.

There will be a celebration of and opportunity to say thank you to Gunnar on Sunday, July 31 from 2 to 4 p.m., at the Park McCullough House Carriage Barn, North Bennington, Vt.

There will be a second opportunity to honor Gunnar at Bennington College this fall. All who feel touched by Gunnar’s life are welcome at both.

In memory of Gunnar and to continue his legacy, the family is establishing a trust in his name; The Schonbeck Trust for Explorations in Education. The trust will care for the instruments he built, catalogue and maintain the Schonbeck instrument collection and create ongoing opportunities for people to experience them. Contributions in lieu of flowers can be made directly to the Schonbeck Trust for Education c/o Chittenden Bank, 401 Main St., Bennington, VT 05201.

Arrangements are under the direction of Ackley & Ross Funeral Home, Cambridge.
Published in Bennington Banner on July 23, 2005
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