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