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Florence Symphony Orchestra

Just for you, this is my very first newspaper column. Hopefully my writing has improved over the years!! Smile. Anyway, this is a brief history of the Florence Symphony Orchestra during my time as Chair, 1994 to 2000. First published May 1, 2013.

The superb acoustics of the Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center magnifies the orchestra. The American Symphony Orchestra League has finally admitted Florence Symphony Orchestra (FSO) to membership despite its early misgivings. The FSO remains a proud member (the organization is now called the League of American Orchestras) and is one of the few remaining mostly volunteer orchestras in the United States.

The outstanding musicians of Florence have given us an incredible gift: a top-rated Florence Symphony Orchestra.

The FSO was organized in 1949 and first played in temporary World War II buildings at the airport, later in various school auditoriums, in the Francis Marion University student center and gym for Pops Concerts, then at the Florence Civic Center and finally in its magnificent and well-deserved new home in the FMU Performing Arts Center.

In 1986 I was elected to be chairman of the FSO Board of Directors, although at the beginning Andrew Kampiziones and I were co-chairs. It turned out I had a six-year term. Once I got over the honor of it all, I realized that we were facing simultaneous and interrelated crises. The symphony manger and the musical director were both near retirement; our funding was poor, and we had just lost our tax-advantaged status, meaning that fundraising was going to be almost impossible. My first impulse was to shake my head, slap myself in the face, and then to look up the phone number to call in my resignation. But I decided that all this might be a way to get some practical business experience, meet lots of folks, listen to great music and maybe even have some fun.

The tax issue needed immediate attention. Fortunately, I had met State Rep. Hicks Harwell at the Lions Club and I had also seen Sen. Hugh Leatherman’s name on a billboard when I stepped off the train coming into Florence six years before. These two quality politicians got behind us and passed a piece of local legislation that reinstated the FSO charter. Betty Hirst and I then spent countless hours filling out endless IRS forms to obtain a new tax ID number and regain our Charitable Organization Designation.

The next two challenges played out over several years and were, politically, more difficult. I decided we needed to face the loss of our business manager first. I wanted somebody connected to business and who also had an interest in the Symphony, so I decided to start with the members of the Symphony Guild who had spouses in the local business world. The new manager moved to clarify our accounting and banking and establish invoice systems, everything that a business manager should do in the computer age. But one or two years was as long as any would stay because of corporate transfers.

Then I discovered Jenny LeVine. I had known her banking family, but I was not aware of her interest in the Symphony. She took over like a whirlwind and got involved in everything, including telling me how to do my job. Jenny was fabulous and got the FSO started on the road to the professional management it now enjoys. She was only part time in those days, also doing marketing for the Pee Dee Bank while in addition serving as a full-time mom.

Next we had to take on the job of finding a new Music Director, a difficult task since Dr. Benjamin West had done such an excellent job for almost 30 years. I had no idea where to start. Dr. Benjamin Woods from FMU and first violinist Starr Ward started giving me names of people to call. All roads led to Charleston and Dr. Wan Moh Kim. Dr. Kim was a member of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and its assistant director as well. He also toured and taught students and spent time directing in South Korea and Los Angeles.

We went down to Charleston to meet him and about six weeks later, my wife, Shirley, and I had dinner with him. Dr. Kim was amenable, but wanted to work in discrete blocks of time, so he could continue his California and Korean work. We struck an agreement: he would come to all the concert weekend practices with other practices outside of his time blocks handled by the orchestra internally.

There was much discussion with the board and the orchestra during these times about all these changes. Once it got so intense that I had to survive a “no confidence” vote from the board; I did survive with the help of my “four horsemen:” Betty Hirst, Hazel Boone, Kirsten Grossman and Mary Alice Busch. In the end Dr. Kim came on board and the orchestra flourished.

As mentioned, fundraising was an obvious problem with the orchestra in transition. Andrew, Kirsten and I divided up the list of donors and potential corporate donors among ourselves and hit the streets. We were actually able to increase our budget, thanks to some grant work, new fundraising ideas from Kirsten (the Symphony Guild Designers Home) and a generous community. This was before, I might note, the advent of the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation.

Today, I can but marvel at the modern success of our FSO. Shirley and I love sitting in the acoustically perfect PAC listening to great music. Marvelous!!

Jenny LeVine and her husband, Tom, are usually there, too. We often meet in the lobby after a concert and hug each other and say “Can you believe it? How far they have come! Who would have thought it?”

We go home content and with happy memories of challenging times long past.

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