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Thomas Sokol

Obituary of Thomas A Sokol

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Thomas A. Sokol

Ithaca - Thomas A. Sokol, of Ithaca, New York, passed away peacefully on April 28, 2019, following a brief illness, surrounded by his loving family.

He was born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania on July 28, 1929, and raised in nearby Sewickley, the second son of Hungarian immigrants John and Mary Sokol.

Hard work, music, athletics, family and faith were woven throughout Tom's life from beginning to end. He studied trumpet from an early age, worked in a music store, directed the St. James Church Choir at age fourteen, played in a dance band, worked in the steel mills, was a volunteer fireman and played football in high school. He attended Virginia Military Institute on a football scholarship for a semester and then transferred to Emory and Henry College in Southwest Virginia. He studied history, music composition and theory while playing in dance bands and directing the Collegians Chorus. He excelled in track, basketball, and football; "Lightning Legs" Tommy Sokol still holds the College's record (1950) for the longest interception return for a touchdown of 102 yards. He participated in the Tangerine and Tobacco Bowls. Always a multitasker, he directed the band at halftime in his football uniform. He graduated with honors in 1951.

Tom went to George Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt University) in Nashville on a Carnegie Teaching Fellowship. He studied music composition and musicology, directed choirs and was named music supervisor of Davidson County schools. He earned his MA degree in 1952.

In 1954 Tom went to Harvard University where he studied conducting under G. Wallace "Woody" Woodworth. Woody took him to Tanglewood that summer and then invited Tom to come to Boston to be his assistant conductor for the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliff Choral Society. Earning the Weyman Foundation Grant, the Sokols made the move from Nashville. While in Boston, in addition to his Harvard duties and the wonderful travels with Woody, he was on the faculty at Newton College of the Sacred Heart, served as acting director of choral activities at The New England Conservatory, served as stand-by conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society and was a co-founder, musical director and vice-president of Cambridge Records.

In 1957, the growing Sokol family moved to Ithaca. Sokol was brought to Cornell University by President Deane Malott as Assistant Professor and Director of Choral Music. During his nearly four-decade tenure at Cornell, under the administrations of five University Presidents, he directed the Sage Chapel Choir, the Chamber Singers and the Cornell Chorale, and for periods of time, he served as Chairman of the Music Department. As Director of the Glee Club, he propelled the transition of the musical fare performed by the ensemble from a focus on light entertainment to performances of serious repertoire on a world-class level. Additionally, there were major changes in the administrative and financial relationship between the Club and the University. During his tenure at Cornell, Tom took the Glee Club on many memorable domestic tours and more than ten ambitious international tours to more than twenty countries. These included culturally groundbreaking tours to the USSR in 1960-61, a three-month tour to Southeast Asia in 1966 sponsored by the State Department, and a tour to Eastern Europe in 1972 at the height of the Cold War. In January 1989, as tensions were rising, and just before Tiananmen Square, the CUGC toured Asia including China, which was the basis for "Geographical Fugue", a documentary shown on PBS.

From 1957 to 1960, Tom oversaw the transition of the women's vocal groups on campus into the Cornell Chorus, maintaining its identity as a separate ensemble dedicated to treble music. The Chorus also enjoyed their own independent domestic and international tours.

Tom added the performance of major works with Glee Club, Chorus, and Orchestra as a regular feature, collaborating many times with his dear friend and colleague, Karel Husa and the Cornell Symphony Orchestra. This tradition of collaboration grew and resulted in many unforgettable performances, broadcasts, recordings, and premieres in Ithaca and around the world. Tom constantly created opportunities for his students to experience the highest level of music making with world-renowned orchestras, composers, soloists, conductors and fellow choral groups in many cities, countries, churches, cathedrals, concert halls and venues. Tom prepared choruses for performances in Carnegie Hall, the John F Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Philadelphia's Academy of Music, and numerous foreign venues.

Tom collaborated with artists including The Buffalo Philharmonic under Michael Tilson Thomas and Julius Rudel, work with Thomas Michalak and the New Jersey Symphony, The Buffalo Schola Cantorum, the Missa Solemnis at Lincoln Center, the Eastman Brass Ensemble, and the King's Lynn Festival in England with Dame Janet Baker. 1962 saw Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in Ithaca and Philadelphia with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which resulted in Ormandy declaring Tom "one of the five best choral conductors in the country". Beethoven's Ninth was again performed with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra as the 1966 Saratoga Performing Arts Center Opening Ceremony. Bach's Mass in B Minor, Orff's Carmina Burana with Soprano Evelyn Mandac, Anton Reicha's Te Deum and Husa's Apotheosis of this Earth, along with Requiems by Faure, Berlioz, Durufle, Brahms, Britten, Verdi, Mozart, and Mahler's Symphony No. 2 ("Resurrection") were more than memorable.

The good Professor Emeritus "retired" in 1995 although he was never far from campus and his musical life there. As much as Tom was a music director at Cornell he was also a coach and mentor to many future professional musicians and administrators. In 1998, Michael Slon authored "Songs from the Hill - A History of the Cornell University Glee Club." Michael's comprehensive look at the Glee Club recounted many of Tom's experiences and includes extensive and thorough insights from Tom, who understood that the student managed structures of the Glee Club and Chorus were at least as important as musical capabilities. Tom's guidance, support, and direction impacted lives far beyond their time on campus.

In addition to his university life, Tom directed the Tanglewood Festival Choir in 1964. He conducted the Dessoff Choirs in New York City for five years in between 1968-72 and was awarded the National Orchestral Association's Conducting Award in 1971, culminating in a concert at Carnegie Hall. He worked extensively with the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra and Carl St Clair. He was a founding member and choir director for St. Catherine of Siena Catholic church.

Tom loved nothing better than a good cigar, a cold beer, and a good day of golf with good friends. He enjoyed many golf outings with his pals and was a member of the Cornell University Golf Course and the Country Club of Ithaca. He was always ready for a road trip to transport his children wherever they needed to go or to get a bite. He maintained an energetic life, was enthusiastic, strong and determined to stay fit. Most of all, he continued to teach by quiet dignified example, maintaining active and loving communication and counsel with generations of family, students, colleagues, and friends.

Tom was preceded in death by his parents John and Mary, his brother Jack and a bunch of golf buddies, friends, students, and colleagues.

He is survived by his former wife Nancy, and their five children: Stephanie (Michel) Ducamp, Rolfe Sokol, Maria (Phillip) Jannetto, Anne (Michael) Ledbetter and Julia (Wendy Creese) Sokol, his current wife Donna, Jason Sokoloff and Claudia Sokoloff. Grandchildren are: Gabriella (Morgan), Alex (Courtney), Marcella, Phillip (Audra), Jeremiah, Josephina, Geoffrey, Alex (Kelsey), Emma and Jillian. Great-grandchildren are: Ava Luna, Annabelle, Lillian, Piper and Finley. Nieces are: Cynthia, Sandra, Janine and Rene, and by his former marriage, several nieces and a nephew.

Friends are welcome to join the family in a Remembrance and Celebration of Tom's life on Monday, May 6, 12:00 noon to 3:00PM at The Country Club of Ithaca at 189 Pleasant Grove Road.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Tom's name to the Cornell University Glee Club Endowment and/or the Elizabeth A. Gale Endowment Fund for Women's Chorus.


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Thomas Sokol

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Thomas Sokol

1929 - 2019

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