By DAVID GREEN
It’s a face Flossie Keefer had seen many, many times on television. The man at the front of the band from the Music Under the Stars series at the Toledo Zoo.
Now it was a face she could study right in her own living room.
Sam Szor, longtime conductor of the Toledo Concert Band, walked into Flossie’s East Street home Sunday afternoon to help celebrate her 93rd birthday.
The arrangements for the visit were made by a neighbor, Kathy Wickham, who went to nursing school with Sam’s wife, Judy.
It was 5:20 and the Szors hadn’t arrived. There was a sense of anticipation in the Keefer home, and maybe a feeling of nervousness, as well.
It wasn’t much later that the burst of energy known as Sam Szor was shaking hands with Flossie and relating his life experiences to this admiring fan.
Sam said that he grew up in what was once the Hungarian neighborhood of Toledo.
“When I started school, I knew two words in English—airplane and ice cream—and that was about it,” he said.
He’d go home from school and move right back into Hungarian.
“It wasn’t until I went to the University of Michigan that I spoke English for the entire day.”
In high school, Sam’s music teacher had a plan for his future. She asked what he might do after graduation and he answered that he would probably attend Bowling Green or Toledo to study engineering.
“No you aren’t,” she said. “You’re going to Ann Arbor and you’re going to study music.”
Sam packed his three instruments, auditioned for a professor and was accepted.
“Have you ever had an elderberry pie?” Sam suddenly asked Flossie.
It’s not that the college story had ended. This is just the way Sam’s conversations travel. Somewhere in his story about driving the back roads through Temperance to Dundee to Milan and into Ann Arbor, the thought of elderberries must have popped into his mind.
“I’ve made hundreds of them,” Flossie answered, “but I don’t like elderberry pie.”
Her husband Charlie loved them when he was alive, but he could have the entire pie to himself.
“Oh dear,” she said, “they’re such a nuisance to prepare.”
The conversation turned to apple dumplings and to key lime pie, and then over to Costa Rica where beans and rice are a staple, and finally to iguana.
“It tastes like chicken,” Sam declared, but this was just a Szor joke.
Sam returned to his college era and talked about his first job as a teacher in a Toledo high school.
“I also played bassoon for 15 years with the symphony and nine years with the Toledo opera.”
It’s the opera where he honed his conducting skills, but he was a conductor with a brush cut.
“All my serious music friends said I needed to have long hair,” Sam recalled, “so I went to this wig shop on Madison Avenue.”
He found a hair piece that made him look like Toscanini, but it cost $250, and that was decades ago. The clerk asked if he wanted it, but Sam demurred.
“No, that’s too much tou-pée.”
Arrrg, another Szor joke.
Now it’s Flossie’s turn for a story and she’s talking about her piano in the front room.
“My husband got it for me when I was 34 years old,” she said. “It was my birthday present. I told him I’m not going to get any older. I’m going to stay 34. But somehow I did get old.”
“But think of all the pleasure you got out of that piano,” Sam suggests.
“It makes me sad that I can’t do it anymore,” Flossie answers, referring to her arthritis.
Sam tells Flossie he just wrapped up his 50th season as director of Music Under the Stars at the zoo. One of his favorite parts of the show is the encore at the end when the band performs a special number that isn’t listed on the program. Sam’s son, Michael, often helps transpose a piece for the orchestra to play.
One week it was “Dancing Queen” by ABBA. Another time “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen was played. Many people in the audience are familiar with the pieces, Sam says, because they heard their kids play them for years and years.
One number in particular stands out in Sam’s mind because he remembers his announcer, veteran television newscaster Gordon Ward, introducing the piece.
“It was so difficult for Gordon Ward to say, ‘I’m a Hunka Hunka Burning Love’.”
Flossie had been partying since 1 o’clock Sunday afternoon, the start of her birthday open house, but she could probably listen to Sam Szor’s stories for another few hours. Most likely, he had a few hours worth of stories yet to tell, too.
But his family was pulling him back home to Toledo, so he led a rendition of “Happy Birthday” and bid Flossie good-bye.
Flossie was still smiling as he made his way out.
“This has been the biggest thrill of my life,” she said.– Oct. 9, 2002