I currently have columns running in 3 newspapers;
- Tri-Valley Herald : Looking Back
- Valley Times : Do You Remember?
- The Independent : Do You Remember?
The Articles appear in the Herald and Independent on Thursdays,
and the Times on Sundays.
They will also be found on this page each week as well.
If you've missed any please follow the links on the dates to catch up.
Paying Tribute to Livermore's "Mother Music"
By Barry Schrader..................................January
The name Renee Smith conjures up conflicting images among people in
the Livermore-Amador Valley who knew her over the 40 years she lived here,
some with respect for her musical talents and others with disdain for her
"busybody" hostility towards the school system and Lawrence Lab,
among other targets that felt her wrath from time to time.
But Renee Smith left an indelible mark on the community she called home
for the majority of her life, and that is one of a gifted musician who shared
her talent and reached out to the less fortunate-many of whom are better
off today for having known her.
She first entered my life back in 1967 when I came to Livermore as the Herald
editor. Her letters to the editor were scathing and her perseverance on
school-related issues was unswerving. She introduced me to a controversial
teacher named Abe Feinberg and I was impressed by his bold (albeit reckless)
attacks on the school district that earned him the enmity of school officials
and fellow teachers alike. I invited him to write a column about local educational
issues, and it was one of the most controversial opinion pieces ever to
hit the paper's editorial pages. My publisher and I felt the heat from school
leaders and soon after I had departed Livermore for a four year stint back
home in Illinois on a paper there, Feinberg's column was terminated and
he was later fired by the school district. This was one of the many "causes"
that Renee took up, and in the end she and other Feinberg supporters saw
him reinstated with back pay and their outrage vindicated.
Upon my return to Livermore in 1972 I found her just as active in promoting
music education and the cultural arts as ever. She had organized what was
to become the forerunner of the Livermore Fall Arts Festival, putting together
a performing arts event at the old Ruby Hill Winery. She can also be credited
with founding the Livermore Madrigal Society, the Livermore Banjo Band,
an opera workshop, a coffeehouse musical group, organ and piano workshops,
music scholarships, and fundraising efforts for scores of needy students,
many of whom went on to become successful musicians and teachers themselves.
She abhorred the elimination of counselors in the school district and authored
a College Planning Guide, then found a sponsor to print thousands of copies
so each junior and senior in Livermore, Pleasanton and Dublin could get
a free copy. She even went back to college after 30 years to work on a degree
in counseling, just so she could help local students who lacked direction
on college choices due to the dearth of counselors in our schools.
A very talented pianist and organist, she played for countless private and
public events, as pianist at the Pleasanton Holiday Inn (now Crown Plaza)
for nine years, then the past few years at the Faz restaurant. That is where
a group of her friends, led by Charlotte Severin, surprised her in October
with an early birthday present-a healing folk harp, knowing she had a limited
time left due to spreading cancer, which she was reluctant to deal with.
It eventually took her life this past weekend, but her memory will linger
on with many who were touched by her talent, her tenacity and her giving
nature, despite the controversies that surrounded her throughout the four
decades in her adopted hometown of Livermore.
I had the joy of spending two hours doing an oral history interview with
her for the Livermore Heritage Guild just over two months ago, when we reminisced
about all her causes and "chasing windmills," which we had both
done in our parallel lives in this valley. I kidded her about the "goldfish
caper" which brought scorn upon her from LLNL officials and some Lab
friends as well. This was the "unscientific" experiment where
she spread goldfish around town, reporting that more were dying sooner closer
to the Labs. She blamed it on the Tritium in the water, echoing the same
alarm she had sounded over "plutonium in the park" near her home
in Big Trees Park. Only time will tell whether her claims of higher than
normal cancer rates among locals will prove anything about our environment,
but I have to give her credit for believing in what she was doing-right
up until her last breath. A column on her appeared in the Valley Times just
over a week ago, written by staffer Bonnie Brewer. (Insert date for readers)
I will miss her half hour phone calls, her pleas for "just one more
donation" and her never-ending drive to help every musical cause for
anyone or group in need. She was bigger than life and there won't be another
"Mother Music" in Livermore for far too many years. They broke
the mold when they made Renee Smith!
* * *
Next week's history mystery question comes from Jeri Long of P-town,
a fellow journalist turned public relations person like myself. She reminded
me that we both worked for the same newspaper back in the early 1970s. Her
suggested question: The Pleasanton school district has had offices in how
many locations back in time and where were they? And for bonus points, who
were the various superintendents over all that time? Dorothy Laird, do you
remember? Then your memory's much better than mine!
* * *
The columnist can be reached via email at :
or by snailmail at:
PO Box 446
Livermore, CA. 94551