Eugene Shepherd, influential violinist and teacher, dies at 96

Eugene Shepherd served as concertmaster of the Santa Rosa Symphony for 33 years.|

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.”

If his own life was a symphony, it would start with a gypsy tune, segue into some Big Band music, then finish with a Hollywood soundtrack and something from the standard classical repertoire.

Born with the name Jeno Jhasz to Hungarian immigrants in Trenton, New Jersey, Shepherd was raised in Cleveland and enjoyed a fulfilling music career, from his early days as a gypsy violinist to illustrious stints in Hollywood studios and on the Broadway stage.

“I heard all these gypsy violinists at the Hungarian Grape Festival, and I started taking lessons from a gypsy violinist,” Shepherd said of his early days in Cleveland, where a thriving ethnic community kept the Eastern European music alive. “Every restaurant had gypsy orchestras and wonderful food.”

Later, he took lessons from members of the Cleveland Orchestra, graduated cum laude from the Baldwin-Wallace University in Berea, Ohio with a bachelor’s degree in music and won a two-year fellowship to study violin at the Juilliard School in New York.

During Shepherd’s basic training in the Air Force, band leader Glenn Miller invited him to join the Air Force show, “Winged Victory,” which was opening on Broadway. Shepherd later toured the country with the show and won a speaking role in the movie version. Except for that film, he never saw any combat during his Air Force stint.

“We captured Broadway, and then we established a beachhead in Santa Monica and worked in the 20th Century foxholes,” Shepherd quipped in a 2005 interview.

After the war, he toured the country again with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, then went on to make movie shorts in Hollywood.

“While he was in the service, he met (composer) Henry Mancini and (comedian) Red Buttons,” Williams said. “I could spend hours listening to his stories and flipping through the pictures.”

After earning a master’s degree at the University of Southern California, Shepherd and his wife, Viola Claire Rockburn, moved to Napa so he could work as an occupational therapist at the Sonoma State Hospital. He played with the Napa Valley Symphony and founded the Napa Junior Symphony.

The couple had a daughter, Gina, in 1956 and moved to Santa Rosa in 1958, before later divorcing. Shepherd raised his daughter with the help of his mother, Mildred Biachi, while teaching at Cook Junior High.

While playing with the Santa Rosa Symphony, he befriended violinist Anne Clark, who became his lifetime companion until her death in 2009.

In 1959, he founded the Sonoma County Junior Symphony, which later became the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Youth Orchestra. In 1980, he took over the Baroque Sinfonia of Sonoma County, which expanded its reach from “Bach to Bartok” under his baton.

With that orchestra, affiliated with the Santa Rosa Junior College, Shepherd was able to provide an opportunity for talented a local musicians such as Xenelis to perform as soloists.

“He was such a relaxed performer,” Xenelis said. “And he was always very generous. We’d go out to dinner after a concert and he would treat the performers.”

In his final performance with that orchestra in 2005, Shepherd strung together a “hit parade” of classical music, combining four of his favorite symphonic movements by Mozart and Beethoven into an “Ultimate Symphony.”

A visitation will be held at 10 a.m., Jan. 7 at Eggen & Lance Chapel in Santa Rosa, followed by an 11 a.m. memorial service. A reception will follow.

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