Eugene Shepherd, an influential violinist and teacher who served as concertmaster of the Santa Rosa Symphony for 33 years and founded what became the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Youth Orchestra, died Thursday at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Rosa from surgery complications after a fall. He was 96.
The news of his death shook the local music community, reaching the orchestra musicians as they rehearsed last week for the annual Redwood Empire Sing-Along Messiah, a popular fundraising concert that Shepherd led for 25 years alongside choral director Dan Earl.
“I announced it to the orchestra, and it was a poignant moment for them,” said Nick Xenelis, conductor of the Santa Rosa Chamber Orchestra, who took over the baton from Shepherd. “Many of the musicians had played with him.”
Shepherd never let his serious musical talent get in the way of his sense of humor, and he was known as much for his corny musical puns and bad viola jokes as he was for his sweet vibrato and phrasing.
“The best part was that he just always wanted to make us laugh with his silly jokes and goofy stories,” said his daughter, Gina Rankin, of Kelseyville. “He was funny, hardworking, dedicated, passionate about music and always smiling.”
“He was a clown,” said Xenelis, who also took over Shepherd’s position when he retired from Cook Junior High in 1980. “He used to have an exploding violin that he would demonstrate to the students. ... He would put his bow on the string, and it would completely fall apart.”
Collegial and fun-loving, Shepherd enjoyed playing tennis with local legends such as the late cartoonist Charles M. Schulz and Santa Rosa Symphony Conductor Emeritus Corrick Brown. He spent his retirement perfecting the timing of his golf swing and his jokes while writing stories about his life. He also spent time with his grandchildren: Matthew, an accomplished sax and keyboard player; Taylor, a composer and professional drummer; and Nicole, a sociology student at UC Berkeley.
According Brown, Shepherd will be remembered for teaching several local violinists who went on to play in high-level symphonies and ensembles. Among his most successful students, Shepherd counted Sid Page, a studio musician who played with Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks; and Anthony Martin, who plays with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco.
Shepherd also mentored Santa Rosa violinist Cindy Weichel, who plays with the Napa Valley Symphony and has conducted orchestras for 25 years.
“She was his manager and his right-hand woman for decades,” Rankin said. “She organized the music and helped keep him organized.”
Bob Williams, who plays with the Santa Rosa Symphony and led the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Preparatory and Discovery Orchestras for 32 years, first studied violin with Shepherd at Cook Junior High in Santa Rosa, where Shepherd led award-winning orchestras and marching bands for 21 years.
“I don’t think he ever realized how much of a role he played in young people’s lives,” Williams said. “Gene was the consummate, classical music teacher, and he was an active performer, which was great for all of us to see.”
Andy Collingsworth, director of bands at Sonoma State University, also studied with Shepherd at Cook Junior High and benefited from his guidance and mentorship.
“He was especially important to me when I lost my father during my ninth-grade year,” Collingsworth said. “Gene was an inspirational teacher and a gracious human being.”