Professor Emeritus of Music Cecil Isaac, founding director of Sherman Symphony Orchestra, died May 30, 2021, in Bellingham, Washington. He was 90 years old. He moved to Washington shortly after his 1996 retirement from his distinguished teaching career at Austin College.
Mr. Isaac arrived at Austin College in September 1962, teaching a sequence of music history and music literature courses, as well as orchestra and ensembles, and brass instruments. Just a few years later, in 1964, Isaac and several community and college musicians came together to play through Beethoven’s first symphony. A love of music kept the group coming back. That simply, the Sherman Symphony Orchestra was born. Of course, details and procedures had to be worked out, but the beginning was rooted simply in the love of music—and Isaac conducted the symphony and took care of every detail for the next 26 years.
Of course, many of Isaac’s students were members of the symphony, so his passion for music became a powerful teaching tool, and performance in the symphony provided students true hands-on experience. Isaac took delight in students who continued music study beyond Austin College but also in students who took other paths yet who attended concerts and appreciated the music he had taught them to better understand.
A Phi Beta Kappa Scholar, Isaac was a Danforth Fellowship Teacher and was twice chosen for National Endowment for the Humanities special seminars—one at New York University in New York City and one at Harvard University.
He laid down his baton in 1992. Though he had given up conducting, he continued teaching for four more years. In his final year of teaching, one alumnus tells that he was the only student in the first semester of music history. The student hoped the professor would, in his final year, just cancel the class; not Cecil Isaac. The graduate said each class session began with attendance, and then came hard work with no one to hide behind if he didn’t know an answer. The next semester’s course doubled—two students took the second section, and that first alumnus called it also “a powerful session.”
Isaac’s good friend Judy Wiser Bayless ’66 said that in Bellingham, he continued his love for music, culture, and nature—and the beautiful Northwest is a great place for that. “Many former students, colleagues and others who counted him a beloved mentor and friend remained close through the years and often expressed their appreciation for the impact he had on their lives,” she wrote. She also offered this quote:
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments,
but what is woven into the lives of others.”—Pericles
Isaac’s life is surely woven like a silver thread throughout the lives of countless Austin College students and faculty, and continues to spread throughout the Sherman community, enhanced still today by the symphony he began.