The first of many standing ovations at the first BVSO concert of the season, Oct. 26, 2014, was most appropriately offered in appreciation for the announcement that Ruth Chandler Clearfield had been bestowed with Honorary Lifetime Membership, the BVSO’s highest honor. As Executive Director Mary Koeninger read a brief passage of the lovely full-page biography, listing just some of Ruth’s accomplishments and gifts for the BVSO since 1978, the capacity crowd that filled Rudder Theatre listened intently. The applause was loud, and long, for a woman whose listed litany of accomplishments still didn’t fully describe who she is and precisely what she has meant to keeping the BVSO alive and thriving in the Brazos Valley.
Reviewing the program listing, yes it’s true that Ruth has been a member of the BVSS Board of Directors as officer and board member, as well as the Friends Association of the Symphony Orchestra (FASO) during some of its most successful, and fun, viable days of the organization. Indeed, she created the BVSS “Violins for the Valley” and she chaired the “Southern Living Cooking School” and worked in the Symphony office and made funding calls of friends to support the BVSO, but there’s a “whole other Ruth,” who’s been a key part of the fire that has kept the symphony alive in the hearts of patrons here.
Through just one person’s eyes, from as early as 1986, Ruth Clearfield has been one of three top local cheerleaders for the Brazos Valley Symphony Orchestra. Indefatigable in enthusiasm and infectious in spirit, when Ruth calls and says, “We are so excited about the symphony’s next concert; are you coming? You’re not? You must!” that’s all there is to it. You get your tickets and find your seat and have the time of your life, as you sit spellbound in amazement that a group of talented musicians resides in and around the Brazos Valley. This hometown (sort of) group comprises an exceptional orchestra, even if you’ve been used to “big city” symphonies all your life. And you leave thinking it was all your idea in the first place to attend that day. She’s that good!
The Brazos Valley Young Artist Competition that was conceived of and sponsored first by the BVSS was one of Ruth’s favorite projects. She was not always on the committee but she was on the phone calling people she thought could bring a fresh face and new ideas to a group, offering up “newbies” to be mentored by some of the most distinguished music students, teachers, and professional musicians in the community, both on and off the Symphony stage.
Ruth monitored the progress, overtly and covertly, of the long line of volunteers she recruited to work in behalf of the symphony. Meetings where Ruth was leading or contributing to a Symphony fundraiser were simply the most fun you’d ever attended. Adjectives like “fabulous,” “first rate,” “really great” described her opinions of the contributions of each person she had recruited to the team as she would highlight and lift up the works–small and large– that each volunteer had made to the group effort. How can you not feel like your work is valued if Ruth is there to make sure everyone knows what everyone is doing and has done? Every contribution from every volunteer meant something to Ruth. Her handwritten notes and clippings she’d faithfully send in the mail reinforced her sincere, true appreciation for each volunteer.
That element alone is one that is “Classic Ruth” in that it takes an individual who understands the hearts and minds of people “who want to help” but don’t know where and how to pitch in. Some hesitate, as they wonder: if there’s an open door to helping, and pauses at the door, unwilling to knock, so as not to disturb status quo, to not rock the boat that seems to be sailing along just fine, or to heavens to Betsy, upset the apple cart of the “We’ve always done it this way”-ers. Ruth knocks down walls, open doors, and finds people seats to be a part of what she thinks is the most exciting thing to do in Bryan-College Station—the arts, the arts, the arts!
For a long time, Ruth wore a button, in conjunction with her leadership of the local Arts Council of the Brazos Valley group, “Volunteers are the hearts of the arts,” or something close to that. She wore it everywhere she went and it was her calling card and talking point when she was on a mission to bring in someone to help with some project or the other that the BVSS or FASO was cooking up.
One of the most hilariously fun volunteer projects was the “Money Mile for Music,” initiated in 1990 by a committee that stemmed from FASO. As Ruth would be fast to tell you, the Money Mile was the idea of the late Pat and Spencer Baen, and a committee was assembled to make it happen. The concept was to headquarter at local Post Oak Mall and lay out a course of one mile and fill each part of it with dollar bills, donated to the BVSO. In exchange for your $1.00 donation, you’d receive one Hershey’s Symphony candy bar! The Symphony bars were a new idea from Hershey, PA, and the Baen’s had seen this concept work (with regular candy) during one of their exciting travel vacations they took regularly.
So, you would think that the FASO committee would have to go around and buy up a bunch of candy bars to give out, thus offsetting potential future profits, right? Wrong. To hear Ruth’s devoted brilliant and adorable husband, Dr. Abe Clearfield, tell it, one day Ruth is on the phone with Hershey’s headquarters in Pennsylvania, saying, “No, 200 bars won’t do. That’s nice of you, but we need 1,000 candy bars if we’re going to raise at least $1,000 for the symphony. We’re trying to raise far more than that, you see, but we need at least 1,000 candy bars. What can you do for us?”
Abe learned of Hershey’s answer to Ruth’s question about two weeks later when he came home from the Chemistry Department (he is a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and former Associate Dean of the College of Science) and his entryway was literally framed by box upon box upon box of Hershey’s candy bars! He laughed, made his way through the cardboard, and said, “Hi, honey I’m home. I see you were successful with Hershey’s.” They stayed there for about two weeks before being transported to Post Oak Mall to give away to people who donated dollars to the Money Mile for Music, the first year of several the event was held there.
Turns out that the first Money Mile raised over $10,000 that day in September, 1990, and it was, as Ruth would be first to tell you, the work of a wonderful committee, advance fundraising having been done by others she named first, logistics and support by others she named, and so on and so on. Ruth didn’t leave one name out in her accolades, telling others about it. That year, the Texas Association of Symphony Orchestras invited representatives from FASO to their annual state meeting in San Antonio, to tell the story of how the Money Mile came to be and how it was orchestrated. Those were unforgettable days, filled with adventure and fun.
When Ruth was president of FASO that year, she mentored many young women, including Kass Prince and Peggy Samson, the latter having been recruited by Ann Wiatt to serve as FASO’s first president. The Army never knew a thing about recruiting, compared to some of the women among Brazos Valley volunteers, who didn’t give you a chance to volunteer before you were announced as a vital this-or-that member of such-and-such committee. That’s how it went back then.
At the end of Ruth’s term as FASO president, a special luncheon music offering was presented, written by Prince, Samson and a third team member. They performed “The Ruth Rap” and the song was a resounding hit, at least at the luncheon. The laughter ensued, tears streamed down Ruth’s cheeks, as she heard her home phone number incorporated (a lot) into her signature song. It was a number everyone on her committees knew by heart, because if she called you, she had something on her mind, and if you called her, she greeted you with, “Wonderful to hear from you. What do you have?” and you’d darned well better have an update for her! Everyone did. People loved to volunteer when Ruth was in charge.
When Ruth and Abe planned a party for their friends to join them in celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, they said, “Please, no gifts for us; if you’d like to do something, please donate to the Brazos Valley Symphony Orchestra instead.” Classic Ruth. The BVSO did well that anniversary.
Ruth’s love of music, classical and otherwise, is legendary. When she and Abe could get to New York, they’d attend the Met in person. When they could not, they enthusiastically and vocally supported KAMU-FM, Penny Zent, and listened there from here. When Netta and John Simek hosted a 60th Anniversary party for Ruth and Abe, they knew exactly what to do to commemorate a lifetime of love these two have. They engaged soprano Emily Pulley as their surprise for Abe and Ruth, and as everyone gathered in the living room, she appeared up in the balcony and more tears streamed down Ruth’s face, of joy.
Music, classical music, great music, and more music have been part of Ruth’s DNA from the get-go. She is a delight about sharing that love and devotion, and it must be said that all of Ruth’s activities are to the joy and delight of Abe…husband, life partner, soul mate, and best friend. They aren’t even aware of it themselves, but when they’re enjoying the music, one hand automatically reaches for the other, as though they were teenagers. When you see that, it makes you believe in true love all over again.
Conversely, no other champion of Abe’s scientific accomplishments could be found better than Ruth, who has accompanied him on international travels for years, many times for his receipt of international honorary doctorates in chemistry for his groundbreaking work in the research area of zeolite catalysis.
Over the past two decades, a total of nine individuals have been named Lifetime Members: Ann Wiatt (1992), Drs. Gilbert and Thyra Plass (2000), Ruth Samson (2004), In memory of Florence Ham (2006), Rose VanArsdel (2009), Robert C. Borden and In memory of Shirley Borden (2011) and Ruth Clearfield (2014).
The award is rare and it is to be prized as significant of going above and beyond to bring, create, and sustain enthusiasm, funding, and attendance at BVSO performances that include the most outstanding orchestra members you could want to hear on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Rudder Theatre on the campus of Texas A&M University and out in the community as well. Official sponsor of the entire 2014-2015 season is St. Joseph.
Additional financial support comes from the Arts Council of the Brazos Valley, the City of College Station, the Texas Commission on the Arts, and Art Works; each are key sponsors. Additionally, concerts are co-sponsored within the season by private individuals and businesses. As Mary Koeninger shared prior to the concert, of Clearfield’s many contributions to the BVSO,
Ruth has been a beacon of wisdom, frankness, energy, and passion for the Symphony she loves. She is sought after for her opinion in matters that the Symphony is considering to this day. Her thinking is true and on-target. Ruth is and always will be a beloved part of the Brazos Valley Symphony.”
On Sunday, before Maestro Marcelo Bussiki lifted his baton for “Adagietto,” from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, he turned and said to Ruth, “This is for you.” He smiled so warmly, turned around, and led the BVSO in one of its best performances in years. After the piece concluded, Bussiki singled out several orchestra members with handshakes, starting with Concertmaster Javier Chaparro. He then left the podium and went down and shook Ruth’s hand.
After Sasha Cooke, the lovely Grammy winner and Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano (and hometown girl), sang Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer,” and the BVSO took an intermission, the line of those who stopped to greet Mrs. Clearfield, on their way to greet Sasha, was a lovely sight to witness. Having made the way down to say hello, her first words were, “There are so many more people who are so deserving of this honor,” shaking her head as if still in disbelief that she was singled out for distinction in an award that is both rare and prized by the BVSS to offer. Vintage Ruth Clearfield, a trendsetter among BVSO supporters, a leader among volunteers, a friend to all who are fortunate enough to know her well, and she’s your latest BVSO Honorary Lifetime Member.