Polly Fisher, late champion of Santa Rosa Symphony, to be honored in weekend concerts

Polly Fisher, who managed the symphony for nearly two decades, died Dec. 17 at age 90.|

Polly Fisher was a vivacious teacher and world traveler who managed the Santa Rosa Symphony for nearly two decades through its rise to a major regional orchestra.

The job was a second act in life for Fisher, and she approached it with infectious enthusiasm that impressed symphony staff, musicians and patrons alike as the orchestra’s artistic reputation began to grow in Sonoma County and beyond.

“When someone is that enthusiastic about their work, it rubs off,” said Keven Brown, son of Santa Rosa Symphony Conductor Emeritus Corrick Brown. “She was the perfect person at the time. She got people from all walks of life to be excited about the symphony.”

Fisher, a former North Dakota prairie girl who enthusiastically embraced California and Sonoma County as her new home, died Dec. 17. She was 90.

She is remembered by loved ones as a caring mother, friend and colleague who was always interested in others but preferred not to talk about herself.

“She had a real lust for adventure and travel and people,” said Nancy Berto, a close friend and travel companion. “She was cheerful and supportive and genuinely interested in you and your family. She loved to know everything that was going on.”

With a memory like a steel trap and an aptitude for organization, Fisher was a natural social butterfly who loved to throw parties and get-togethers for friends. Even after she left the symphony, she helped Corrick Brown and philanthropist Don Green hold fundraisers for the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, which has served as the symphony’s home since 2012.

“The symphony was a labor of love for her,” said her son Kyle Fisher of Santa Rosa. “She threw herself into it 24/7, even after she left it.”

Her calling card was her flair for fashion, and she liked to put together ensembles that reflected her vibrant personality.

“The unique thing about Polly is her smile and her flashy way of dressing,” said Corrick Brown, who led the symphony from 1957 to 1995. “Her style was very colorful, and everything always seemed to fit.”

The second youngest of four children, Pauline Alice Quam was born on Aug. 25, 1932 in Fargo, North Dakota to Roland and Mabel Quam. Her mother, an ardent opera lover, encouraged all three of her girls to study a string instrument.

“My older sister played violin, and when Pauline came, they put her on viola,” said her sister, Betty Musser of San Francisco, a cellist who played with the Santa Rosa Symphony for 32 years. “She played viola in the Fargo Moorhead Symphony … It was a community orchestra.”

Musser recalled that her sister was always busy as a child. In her senior year, the teachers voted her “most representative” at Fargo High School, an honor akin to “most likely to succeed.”

She met her future husband, James Fisher of Minot, North Dakota, as a teenager while both of their families spent summers at Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

“She was a high-achieving, high-profile high school person, and my dad was the same in Minot,” Kyle said. “So they got along.”

Both attended Carleton College in St. Olaf, Minnesota, for two years. James transferred to Stanford University while Polly transferred to Mills College in Oakland, where she majored in English literature.

“She used to fine us for improper grammar,” Kyle recalled. “She had a chart that she kept in the basement of all the fines, but she never collected.”

After graduating from college, the couple married in 1954 in Fargo. They moved to Baltimore when James was inducted into the Army. He served as a sergeant at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland while she worked as an administrative assistant for a colonel.

The couple moved back to Minot to raise their three sons. When the boys were old enough, she taught them how to do their own laundry, then went back to school to get a teaching degree from Minot State Teacher’s College.

“She taught creative writing and humanities at the high school,” Kyle said. “I took several of her classes, and she was probably the best teacher I ever had. She was writing a lot her own course programs, in futuristics and science fiction, really interesting stuff.”

The couple divorced in 1975. Once Fisher’s youngest son went off to college, she looked for a new challenge. Her sister, Betty, tipped her off that the Santa Rosa Symphony was looking for a general manager. It was essentially the executive director post, running the entire operation.

After she landed the job in 1978, she sold her house, jumped in her car and headed west.

“When she drove over the top of I-80 after Donner Pass and looked down, the sun broke out,” Kyle said. “She said, ‘This is the Promised Land,’ and she never looked back. She always looked forward.”

Despite her lack of experience in the classical music world, she parleyed her problem-solving ability and people skills into a successful run as manager of the orchestra for 19 years, to 1997.

“She knew how to deal with people,” Corrick Brown said. “She was able to smooth things over, anytime we had an upset. You need people to do that, because obviously all artists have problems … she kept everybody happy, including the conductor, who had his problems too.”

As general manager, she was in charge of everything from tickets and box office sales to fundraising and grants. She would also find substitute musicians at the last minute for both rehearsals and concerts. At the time, her staff consisted mostly of volunteers.

“She had an enormous number of volunteers going through there, because we could not afford to pay staff,” Keven said. “I think that’s why the symphony was so successful, because there were so many people helping it.

Fisher had to find new offices every few years because the organization could not afford to pay rent and needed donated space.

“Every time I’d come visit here, she would put me to work,” Kyle recalled. “I’d be taking tickets, and I can’t tell you how many times I moved offices around.”

Berto first met Fisher 42 years ago at the Association of California Symphony Orchestras (ACSO) conference in San Diego, where they shared a room and bonded over their mutual love of music and travel.

Together, they went on 20-some trips, including a tour to see the Hidden Treasures of St. Petersburg in Russia, a trip to the Yangtse River in China before it flooded and a voyage to Versailles near Paris to hear violinist and conductor Ryan Brown (Corrick’s son) perform with his Opera Lafayette ensemble. After Berto’s husband had to cancel at the last minute, Fisher stepped in to take his place in a strenuous tour of Uganda to visit the endangered mountain gorillas. She only had one day to get her visa and plane tickets.

Due to her deep interest in the classics of ancient history, Fisher traveled to Greece several times with her sister. Her last international voyage was a walking tour of the Cyclades Islands in Greece with Berto in 2019 when she was well into her 80s.

“She was a very good athlete all her life,” Kyle said. “She was a great golfer, a natural tennis player and a strong swimmer.”

Despite her love of travel, Fisher was always happy to land back in Santa Rosa. “She loved every inch of Sonoma County, and everyone in it,” Kyle said. “She was Sonoma County’s biggest booster.”

In her spare time, she organized a group of 8 to 10 film lovers who would meet at the Summerfield Cinemas for a matinee on Thursday afternoons.

“Polly was able to find a movie that most of us would want to see,” Corrick Brown said. “Then we would go to Mary’s Pizza Shack afterward.”

Fisher died at Kaiser Hospital surrounded by her family. She had Waldenstrom’s disease, a rare cancer originating in the white blood cells.

The Santa Rosa Symphony dedicated its concerts Saturday, Sunday and Monday at the Green Music Center to Fisher and to its former stage manager, Dave Badella, who died Dec. 20 at age 70.

“She was always out there making a positive impact for everyone,” said Keven Brown, who will speak at the three concerts.

The family would like to thank the community for its condolences and the medical staff at Kaiser for their care. They are not asking for any donations in her memory out of respect for her reserved nature.

“She always wanted the credit to go to others,” said Kyle. “This part of her story is that it was a life well lived.”

In addition to her sister Musser, Fisher is survived by sister Barbara Nuttell of Minneapolis and brother Gerald Quam of Phoenix, Arizona. In addition to Kyle, she is survived by sons Brock Fisher of San Diego and Jordan Fisher of Nashville, Tennessee; four grandchildren; and numerous nieces and nephews.

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