Renowned violinist and concertmaster Joseph Kovacs died April 27, 2017. He was a summer resident of Beaver Cove for almost 50 years, where he and his wife, Dorothy, lived simply until her death in 2007. After he died, we received a surprise call from his attorney in New Jersey, saying that Mr. Kovacs’s love of our community was translated into philanthropic gifts, with four local non-profit organizations to benefit generously from his estate. The Moosehead Historical Society & Museums was one of them. Past Director Everett Parker remembers Mr. Kovacs coming into the Carriage House to chat quite often and, at one time, said he wanted to support the work we do within our community and that he planned to remember us. He did!
This made me think of philanthropy in general, and the great good it can do, especially in a small, isolated place. It also made me think of this generous man, whom I never met.
Who was he? What was he thinking? Then last summer I had the pleasure of spending some time with his close friend, Rogers Woolston, who said that Joseph was passionate about our community and about Moosehead Lake. Mr. Kovacs’s story is as remarkable as his philanthropy.
He himself was born in a small town May 20, 1924, near Budapest, Hungary to Joseph and Katalin Hair Kovacs. He began playing the violin as a young boy under his father’s tutelage and later won a scholarship to the Franz Liszt Royal Hungarian Academy of Music, where his teachers included internationally known composer, linguist, and philosopher Zoltán Kodály and composer Béla Bartók , considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century. There, Mr. Kovacs earned the prestigious Hubay prize. At 18, he was offered a job as a concertmaster in Germany, where he fled on foot to avoid being shipped off to Russia to fight. He crossed through Austria and Czechoslovakia into Germany and stayed near the Denmark border, where he played violin under famous conductors. He remembered the strife of war and of having to line his worn-out shoes with cardboard to prolong their usefulness.
In 1948, he was invited to move to New Jersey by relatives. His life as a musician and humanitarian blossomed. He became concertmaster of the original Princeton Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s and eventually taught violin and earned a degree in conducting at Westminster Choir College. He founded the Collegium Musicum of Princeton in 1972, a small chamber group that gave concerts for more than 25 years in Princeton churches. He offered serious classical music, like Bach, Beethoven and Schoenberg, as well as lighter pieces to charm and touch the spirit of his listeners. Mr. Woolston remembers how his friend eventually acquired a very rare violin that he cherished. Mr. Kovacs never let the violin out of his sight, carrying it with him wherever he went.
He retired as professor emeritus from the Mason Gross School the Arts at Rutgers University. In 1960, he met flutist Dorothy Stritsky. They married in 1961 and spent summers thereafter on Moosehead Lake until she passed. They had no children but left behind many devoted students. True to his word, Mr. Kovacs did remember the Moosehead Lake region’s organizations that were important to him.
This gifted man’s gift to a community he so cherished makes me think of philanthropy, and what exactly that means. The dictionary defines philanthropy as an active effort to promote humanitarian purposes; the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to socially useful purposes. The word comes from Greek, meaning “loving people” in the sense of caring, nourishing, developing and enhancing what it is to be human. In other words, supporting those human things that make a community a community.