The next time you attend a Whatcom Symphony Orchestra concert, give thanks to John Corliss, who died Jan. 4 at the age of 80.
"The symphony has lost perhaps the greatest friend it has ever had," said Becky Elmendorf, board president. "He saved the Whatcom Symphony."
Four years ago, rising budgets, declining sponsorships during the recession and an apparent lack of tight budget controls threatened to silence the community orchestra.
That's when Corliss, a retired Lockheed manager who served as the orchestra's volunteer executive director for much of the '90s, came to the rescue. He helped organize an emergency meeting attended by current and former board members, orchestra members and community supporters, and headed a temporary "recovery committee" to put the orchestra onto firm ground.
"He helped us get back to where we could operate again," said Elmendorf, a viola player who joined the orchestra board a few months before the crunch came to a head. "We're still alive and going, when others like Everett and Bellevue have had to fold."
At the time, the orchestra was on track to lose $81,000 that season, and its reserves had shriveled from a high of $130,000 down to about $32,000.
Changes were made quickly, of necessity. The orchestra's paid executive director stepped down and its bookkeeper was let go. Several board members left and new people, including more orchestra members, took their places.
Under Corliss' emergency tenure, the orchestra cut costs, held a successful "Puccini and pasta" fundraiser, set up volunteer committees to focus on various tasks - such as ticketing, marketing and public relations - and tweaked their software so the committees and board members could monitor income and spending.
Orchestra members reached into their own pockets to sponsor a performance, and the orchestra's chamber music performers and artistic director Roger Briggs, who has since retired, took pay cuts to keep a show alive.
Corliss' wife, Judy, played a key role, too, as the orchestra's treasurer.
It was tough, tight times for the orchestra, but Corliss was well-suited to the task.
"His mind could analyze any situation," Elmendorf said. "John was like a dog; when he got hold of something, he was going to make it work."
The Corlisses retired to Bellingham about 25 years ago and became involved in civic activities. John Corliss ran for Bellingham City Council in 1991 but lost to Joy Keenan. He also became active with the Symphony Orchestra even though he wasn't a hard-core classical music hound.
"He didn't know much about music, but he knew how to make that organization work," Elmendorf said. "He valued what we were in the community and he valued that culture that's behind it."
HONOR AT CONCERT
A celebration of John Corliss' life will be held 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 11, at Westford Funeral Home, 1301 Broadway. A reception will follow at Westford's Broadway Hall.
A piece performed by cellist John Friesen will be dedicated to John Corliss at the upcoming Whatcom Symphony Orchestra concert. Friesen is guest performer at the concert, 3 p.m. Jan. 27 at Mount Baker Theatre, 104 N. Commercial St. Tickets, $12 to $30, are available at 360-734-6080 and mountbakertheatre.com.
Reach DEAN KAHN at email@example.com or call 715-2291.