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Jardine: As violin swells, a life devoted to music fades

A life can be like a symphony, a series of movements that come together as one and build toward an all-defining finale.

Sidney Voight lived a symphonic life, a life of many movements encompassing a youthful love that became a lifelong romance -- his music, particularly the violin, and collecting old clocks and other antiques.

He saw the world by playing in cruise ship orchestras before settling in Modesto and offering his musical gifts to the community for decades.

Voight's finale came July 4 at Community Hospice's Alexander Cohen Hospice House, leukemia taking him quickly at 94.

"When he passed, it wasn't really a sad event for me," said nephew Bob Kaiser, a Grass Valley resident, who is among Voight's few surviving kin. "He died the way he wanted to go."

On the day before Voight died, violinist Don Grishaw of the Modesto Symphony Orchestra came to Voight's room to play a private concert.

The sounds of Bach, Handel and Fritz Kreisler filled the room and drifted out into the hallways, stirring Voight's senses for the last time.

"Sidney was not lucid at the end of his life," Kaiser said. "He'd gone downhill quickly. But he did understand what was going on. He opened his eyes."

You see, Voight played in the Modesto Symphony as its concertmaster and first violin under the legendary Frank Mancini in the 1940s and 1950s.

"(The concert) was the completion of what his life for 94 years was all about," Kaiser said.

Voight's symphony of life began in Wisconsin where, at his mother's insistence, he began taking violin lessons in the fourth grade. Music came naturally to him. He learned to play the guitar, piano, saxophone, clarinet and other instruments.

He left home at 17 and married his former high school English teacher, Beatrice Fairbrother.

"She was six or seven years his senior," Kaiser said. "They left on an adventure, destination California. But it took 'em four years to get here. He played in local community bands and orchestras along the way, and he played in the Big Band era."

After a few years playing on the cruise ships, he and Beatrice finally arrived in California in the late 1930s. Sidney went to San Jose State to get his teaching credential while working for Litton Industries, a tech company in Silicon Valley before it became Silicon Valley.

In 1946, Voight accepted an offer to teach music in Modesto, where Mancini soon recruited him into the symphony.

The Voights made Modesto their home. They had no children, but they had each other and the thousands of students Sidney taught to play musical instruments. They also had their hobbies. Beatrice collected handmade dolls.

"Some of them dated back to the 18th century," Kaiser said.

Sidney collected much, much more: antique musical instruments with an emphasis on guitars, antique clocks dating to the 1700s, antique furnishings of all kinds and ham radio equipment.

"He had a ham radio setup that was more powerful than the local radio stations," Kaiser said. "He talked all over the world. He had a tremendous radio collection when he died."

Voight's plan? To open an antique store one day. But it never happened. Beatrice died in the 1970s.

By the mid-1990s, he'd filled his house with antiques and collectibles.

"He had no room to live," Kaiser said.

So Voight moved out, taking up residence in a mobile home on McHenry Avenue, returning to the house every day or so to check on things.

Voight continued to perform, playing the piano and violin for senior citizens' groups around Modesto. He had a female companion for a few years. She died in 2000. He stayed in touch with Kaiser and another nephew, Darold Fairbrother, who lives in the Midwest. Mobile home park neighbor Larry Denny dropped by nearly every day to check up on him and make sure his needs were met.

In April, Voight began feeling weak. He was diagnosed with leukemia. Voight knew he wouldn't live much longer. He knew how he wanted to go -- and for certain where he didn't.

"We spent time going to a half-dozen assisted living facilities," Kaiser said. "He was dead set against it. His desire was to stay home until he couldn't anymore and die at the hospice."

Which is what happened.

Except that Voight didn't orchestrate his last concert.

Marian Kaanon, marketing director at Community Hospice, had talked with Modesto Symphony official Clay Campbell about having symphony musicians come to the Cohen House for this reason.

Social worker Kristi Smith called Campbell, who asked Grishaw if he would play. He agreed and became the first symphony member to do so with the hospice folks.

Only then, in talking with family members, did Grishaw learn Voight had played violin in the Modesto Symphony.

For 25 minutes on July 3, Grishaw and his violin gave Voight one last moment of joy.

"I announced each piece before I played it," Grishaw said. "He most definitely knew what was happening."

Laurie Miller, Cohen House's director, heard the sweet sounds drifting into the hallways.

"I walked out of the office and went to the nurses' station," she said. "The music was enveloping the facility -- light, calming and very beautiful. I think it was a very special moment for the patient and heart-gripping for the staff."

She stayed out in the hallway.

"That's a private moment for the patient," she said.

"Some of the stuff spills over and we get to enjoy it, too. I love the fact the Modesto Symphony offered to do this for us. (Voight) truly enjoyed it, too."

Voight died at 3:30 the next morning, with Kaiser at his bedside.

"I found out later, in the obituary," violinist Grishaw said. "I thought, 'Wow, the next day.' "

The finale of the symphony that was Sidney Voight's life.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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