Monday, February 28, 2011
A Man For All Seasons
On March 10, the Berkeley Symphony will play its final concert of the season at Cal Performances' Zellerbach Hall, featuring works by Stravinsky, Shostakovich and James MacMillan.
For me, the high point will be the world premiere of a solo piano piece called "Vendeval," composed and performed by Latin Grammy winner Gabriela Lena Frank, the Symphony's creative advisor.
The composition is in memory of the late Harry Weininger, who died last Memorial Day. It was commissioned by former KPIX anchor Linda Schacht, who bought the right to do so at last year's Symphony fundraising auction.
She first met him when they served together on the Symphony board.
"But my real appreciation of his role in our community grew through our common relationship to the public library," says Schacht, a board member of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation.
"For several years, Harry worked in a program at the North Branch called 'Lawyers in the Community.' He'd gone to law school at age 54 and, in typical Harry fashion, wanted to use his new skills in a generous way - by counseling anyone who came to the library needing legal advice."
More often than not, they'd arrive feeling angry and frustrated.
"Harry had a way of calming them with courtesy and respect," says librarian Debbie Carton. "He would listen with complete attention and empathy - but not sympathy, because that would have been condescending."
But I haven't even begun to hint at all the good things Harry Weininger did in his 76 years.
A partial list of worthy causes that benefited from his support includes the Berkeley Symphony, Berkeley Public Library Foundation, Berkeley Chamber of Commerce (which he served as president), Planned Parenthood Shasta-Diablo (board of trustees), Berkeley Rotary Club, Berkeley Civic Arts Commission, Berkeley Rep, and the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay.
He even ran for city council once, with campaign posters designed by longtime friend David Lance Goines. He lost.
But his greatest role was that of peacemaker. For as long as I've lived in Berkeley - more than 40 years - the town has been bitterly divided between the Berkeley Democratic Club, aka "the liberals," and the even more liberal Berkeley Citizens' Action, aka "the progressives."
(In case you're curious: Yes, there are still Republicans in Berkeley, and I know both of them.)
It's hard to overstate the enmity these two groups used to feel for each other. As Harry once said, "While it was possible for Soviet and American officials to have dinner together during the Cold War, I'm not aware that the BDC president and the BCA chair have ever had lunch."
That began to change when he became BDC president in 1983, a role he held off and on (mostly on) until 1996. He was a man who was incapable of having enemies, and he numbered people on both sides of the political divide as his friends.
"He was able to talk to everybody, regardless of their political attitude," says Councilwoman Susan Wengraf. "And that made him an invaluable bridge builder."
He did it with humor, wisdom and, most importantly, by serving as a role model for how a civilized person treats those he disagrees with.
He may be gone, but we still have his example to live up to.