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Joseph L. Schaaf

1925 - 2017 Obituary Condolences
Joseph L. Schaaf Obituary
Bennington - Joseph L. Schaaf (92) passed away peacefully in Bennington, VT on Sunday, November 26, after a short illness. Son of Joseph and Rosalie Ryder Schaaf, he was born on November 18, 1925 in Mr. Putnam's 7-year old Memorial Hospital in Bennington (now the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center), where his Aunts Mary and Maude were schooled and worked as nurses. Mrs. Schaaf died two weeks after giving birth; two years later, Mr. Schaaf wed Mary, whom Joe fondly called "Mother."

While Mr. Schaaf attended the one-room Old Bennington School, his mother encouraged his pursuit of music and arranged for violin lessons with Franz Lorenz of Brattleboro. As he said, that decision would change his life and take him places he could never imagine: "The violin made me a somebody, a longhaired musician." Joe played violin with both the Bennington High School band and the Vermont Symphony Orchestra while attending high school, and taught music during the summers at Green Mountain College in Poultney.

After graduating high school at 16, Joe took advantage of Bennington College's war-era policy allowing men to take courses; there he began violin lessons with Mariana Lowell Barzun, who had studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. When Mrs. Barzun introduced him to her husband, Columbia University cultural history scholar and critic Jacques Barzun, it was the beginning of a life-long friendship: Joe matriculated to Columbia, became Barzun's research assistant, and remained in close contact with the writer until his death in 2012. After receiving a B.A. from Columbia in 1948, Joe returned to Bennington College and received his M.A. in 1953.

Joe inspired music students for many years at the Putney School and the Cambridge School of Weston, and many went on to teach, sing, conduct or play music at famous venues around the world. He also spent 26 summers teaching at the Greenwood Music Camp in Cummington, MA, where he returned for summer reunions as a faculty member emeritus. In 1982, Joe wrote "Greenwood - The First Fifty Years (1933-1982)."

He also taught at the Kinhaven Music Camp in Weston, VT, and was affiliated with many area music ensembles including the Bennington County Choral Society, the Marlboro and Manchester Music Festivals, and the Brattleboro Music Center's New England Bach Festivals, directed by Blanche Moyse, to name a few. Joe wrote several concert reviews for the Manchester Newspapers over the years.

After retiring, Joe enjoyed reading, listening to classical music, and keeping in touch with former students via letter and email. He also became a strong advocate for civil rights, serving on the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center's Institutional Review Board, taking an active role in the Vermont Freedom to Marry initiative, and serving as guardian ad litem in the Bennington County Court System for 25 years. In that role, he represented Ronald Comeau in a landmark 1994 life-or-death case that was ultimately heard by the Vermont Supreme Court and highlighted in a CBS Eye on America segment in which Joe spoke with Connie Chung.

Joe Schaaf's knowledge and passion for teaching, playing and enjoying music touched many students and friends over the course of his life. In 2014, former students at the Cambridge School dedicated a rehearsal room in his honor:

With heartfelt gratitude, the Cambridge School of Weston Class of 1964 honors Joe Schaaf, who remains for us an enduring presence. His sterling musicianship and habitual professionalism demonstrated to us the dignity of personal excellence. His uncompromising values fostered in us the joy of communal effort. It is his influence that most unites our class. Over 50 years ago, Joe instilled in us his love of music with an energy that continues to nourish and sustain us. We count ourselves extremely fortunate to have had such an extraordinary mentor and model.

Survivors include cousins in Hancock, NY, Bensalem, PA, Cuyahoga Falls, OH and Tucson, AZ, as well as a circle of friends Joe called "the family I chose." That family would like to thank the doctors and nurses at the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center and the Center for Living and Rehabilitation, the Rev. Mary Lee-Clark of the Second Congregational Church of Bennington, and the many friends, former colleagues and students from around the country who called, wrote or visited Joe filling his final days with joy.

Joe's body will be donated to the University of Vermont for research. A memorial concert in his name will be announced in the spring.

Published in Bennington Banner on Dec. 13, 2017
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