Some Say the World Will End in Fire

Our friend’s world ended in fire over the weekend.

Owen Goldsmith and Tom Darter in 1969, before the premiere of Psalm 90.

Owen Goldsmith and Tom Darter in 1969, before the premiere of Psalm 90.

Owen Goldsmith had been Tom’s friend since high school. He was his music teacher, but more, he was Tom’s music mentor.

Owen taught a rigorous music theory class, which Tom took when he was a sophomore. Music theory in high school is really unusual. For a final spring assignment, Owen asked members of the class to write something. When Tom came back with the beginnings of what he has called “a very bad imitation Mozart string quartet,” Owen said, “Well, this is okay, but I wanted you to write something of your own.”

In response, Tom wrote four Sketches for Woodwind Quartet. A year later, it was played at San Jose State University’s Festival of 20th Century Music, in a concert that also included pieces written by Ernst Toch, John Cage, Anton Webern, and Robert Palmer (who later became one of his teachers at Cornell). Tom was 15 when he wrote the piece, and 16 when it was performed. All because of Owen.

During Tom’s first year of college, a dorm fire took the lives of four students. Psalm 90 was read at their memorial. Tom was so moved by it, he set it to music and dedicated it to Owen and the Livermore High School a cappella choir, which was conducted by Owen. Their 1969 performance of it is flawless. College choirs have hesitated to take it on because it is too complicated.

And their performance is flawless. Listen to it here.

To say that we were blessed with the teachers we had in Livermore during the 60s doesn’t really do it justice. We were more than blessed.

Ed Brush. Art Duey. Claude Cameron. Judy Beery. Jack Beery. Ernie Dust. Roland Carlson. Bert Fraser.

To name just a few.

You know how you don’t teach people what to think, but to think? Well that’s what they did. And more.

There was a synergy to those years. They taught art, music, literature, history, math, and, science as living, breathing beings. I first read Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech in Bert Fraser’s English Honors class my senior year. I have returned to it often over the years, divining new meaning from it each time I read it.

When a group of us, high school and college students, formed a theater company called Auxiliary Players, they gave us their encouragement, came to the performances, participated in some.

One of our earliest performances included one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Harold Pinter. Three very depressing plays.

As he was walking out of the theater at the end of the performance Tom asked Owen what he thought. “I’m going to go home and read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to cheer up,” he replied.

They let us fail. Acknowledged our failures. And we learned from them. Our next performance had much better rounded programming.

Tom and I stayed friends with Owen. He was part of out Thanksgivings, came to our wedding. We visited him in his home in Mountain Ranch where we sat on his deck and drank in the quiet beauty of the Sierra foothills. In his letters to us he wrote of the wildlife that visited his property. We talked to him often and called him every year on his birthday, October 8th.

Our most recent phone call with him was three or four weeks ago. It was clear that Owen was failing. He was having mobility problems. He was depressed, and his depression fogged his mind.

We worried when we heard that the Butte fire was heading his way. His family filed a missing persons report. Then yesterday we learned that his remains were found in the ruins of his home.

Owen would have been 83 this October. A phone call we will miss.

We will probably never know why he didn’t get out—why he didn’t evacuate. I personally think it was a conscious decision on his part not to leave. I don’t think he could have recovered from the devastating loss of his beloved home and the beauty that surrounded it. I suspect he had already died when the fire consumed him.

I have thought of Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” since we started worrying and wondering about Owen. It’s a tribute to my high school teachers that I would turn to poetry and remember a specific poem at such a defining moment. It’s not so much it gives me solace, as it gives me a place to go when life becomes unfathomable.

Fire and Ice
By Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

25 thoughts on “Some Say the World Will End in Fire

  1. Karen, in my heart knowing Mr Goldsmith as I did, I believe in my heart he made a conscience decision to be with his beautiful surroundings and his music he so dearly loved.. He will be missed.

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  2. This was a man who inspired many young minds. When you have graduated over 50 years ago and can still remember him and his passion for music, and how he taught us to enjoy music, then this is a once in a lifetime experience to know this sweet generous man. I agree with Kim Newbury and know that he was at peace surrounded by the things he loved

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  3. I did not know this man but feel this is a wonderful tribute to him….and in a way to all great teachers…I am appreciating him through your loving words…Suellen

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  4. I only knew Mr. Carlson from your list, but he remains as my favorite teacher from my years growing up in Livermore. I took two of his classes and learned so much. It sounds like he and Mr. Goldsmith equally treasured the great outdoors and were both inspiring, beloved teachers. Your tribute was touching and I’m sure others will appreciate it as well. I am sorry to hear of his passing.

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  5. Karen, we were equally blessed to have students like you to learn from!
    I treasure my memories of faculty and students after all these years.
    my love and thanks to all of you, Judith Beery

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  6. It is apparent to me after seeing the out-poor of memories and emotions that have fulfilled many, many of us students in the Bay Area who had Owen Goldsmith as a teacher, and his friends, that we are all now disciples and our job is to rededicate ourselves to music and the beauty of the arts of life, and pass on the story and what we learned from Owen to others.

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  7. Thank you Karen for your wonderful tribute to Owen. I part of the 1969 choir at LHS and remember performing Tom’s Psalm 90. Could you please send me a copy of the MP3? Owen had a great impact on my life.

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  8. Very touching and beautiful tribute to Owen. From the Psalms 90 Tom wrote and the impact on you both, and so many others, you painted with words a masterpiece. I have goosebumps! I am sorry for your loss but Owen lives on through your work and Tom’s.💜

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  9. Hello, Karen. My condolences for your loss. I am the advisor for the Livermore High School student publication, El Vaquerito. We are running an obituary for Owen this week and we would love to use the photo you included in your post, with your permission. May we do that? Feel free to email me at LSarraille@lvjusd.org. Thank you!

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  10. Dear Karen,
    Thank you so much for posting this with the recording. Owen started at Clayton Valley High the same year I did, and he left a lasting impact on my life as well. I, too, think that he may have made a decision to stay in that place which inspired so much of his later works, as he inspired so many of his students. He and I have not been in touch for many years, but his lessons will never leave me – and my life is much richer for that.

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