At times, Wilber "Corkey" Christman had moments of peace, solemnity and quiet retrospection. Nine times out of ten, however, whenever he walked into a room, he lit it up.
"Oh yes, he was something else," his daughter, Laura Sodders, said of Christman, who died Oct. 16 at the age of 80. "He was an amazingly creative person who loved to read and learn something new every day. Whatever he did, he loved practicing at it. He would get obsessed about something and it would take over."
Christman, a Duanesburg native and the son of Philip and Gladys Wilber Christman, was known mostly for his talent with the harp, an instrument he played professionally all of his life and later on a regular basis at Scotia's Turf Tavern. Maria Gallant, a former student of Christman's who owns and operates The Turf, will host a special celebration of Corkey's life today from noon to 3 p.m. On display will be his art work, another of his many passions that also included poetry, dancing, gardening, cross stitching and baking.
"He taught me to play the harp, and he's the one who taught me confidence," said Gallant, who purchased The Turf in 1996 and had Christman playing in her restaurant nearly every night for about 10 years. "He was very energetic, and he gave all of his students a lot of insight into how to hold yourself in front of other people and how to be comfortable on stage. He was awesome."
Artistic talent and creativity ran rampant throughout the Christman family tree. His grandfather was W.W. Christman, a poet, author and naturalist who died just a few months after Corkey was born, and two uncles, Henry and Lansing, were well-known throughout the Capital Region. Henry was the author of "Tin Horns and Calico," the definitive book on New York's Anti-Rent Wars of the 1840s, and Lansing was a television and radio newsman for WRBG and WGY as well as being an editor of the Altamont Enterprise and the author of four books.
In addition to their substantial literary and artistic contributions, the Christmans also donated 105 acres of family property to the Nature Conservancy that is now known as the Christman Sanctuary, a rural piece of land in western Schenectady County that has become a popular hiking and nature area for thousands of Capital Region residents.
"I could go on at length about the legacy of gifts to Duanesburg, and the world in general, given by the Christman family," said town of Duanesburg historian Howard Ohlhous. "Their books, poetry, music, history, their gift of the Christman Sanctuary. The family had the gift of giving. We owe them a debt of gratitute."
Corkey Christman was born into this multi-talented family on December 30, 1936, too soon to have any memory of his grandfather, W.W. While his father, Philip, and his eight siblings had journeyed over to Altamont for their high school education either by horse and wagon or train, Corkey took a bus from Duanesburg to Rotterdam where he attended Draper High School. He started his college education in South Carolina as an arts major, but after three years transferred to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he began concentrating on the harp.
He started his professional career as a musician in New York City and then returned to the area to teach at the Schenectady Conservatory of Music. It was while playing the harp for a Schenectady Light Opera Company production of "The Fantasticks" in 1967 that he met a pianist, Patricia Stanley Harris, who would become his wife. Christman played regularly with the Schenectady Symphony and the Vermont Symphony, and was a solo performer at a number of different venues throughout the Capital Region and the Berkshires for years. During this time he also gave lessons on an individual basis.
"He was eccentric, but in a delightful way," said Elizabeth Huntley, a student of Christman's who became a professional musician herself. "He had a creative soul to the max, and he was an excellent teacher who made it fun. He had high expectations for his students, but it was still always fun."
Christman, who also played quite often at The Bears Steakhouse in Duanesburg, lost his wife in 2012, and as he got older ill health forced him to end his public performances with the harp. At the same time, however, he was able to refocus on his art work. Barbara Muse was a neighbor of Christman's on Duane Lake in Duanesburg and became a close friend.
"We were neighbors before he and Pat moved to Kingsway in Schenectady, and we began taking painting lessons together," said Muse. "When the class ended he said, 'why don't you come to my house and we'll paint together.' He was so much fun, and how we laughed. We laughed a lot. His creativity was just amazing and he was opinionated. We'd talk about movies, music, politics. When he was in the hospital people would talk about the glass being half full or half empty. With Corkey it was always overflowing."
Some of Muse's own artwork will be up on the wall with Christman's at The Turf, and during today's reception Humphrey will be playing her harp before heading off to Skidmore College later in the day for another performance.
"People loved listening to Corkey play the harp," said Gallant. "Whether you were sitting at a table right next to him or across the room, it was never offensively loud. And if you were in another part of the restaurant, the music seemed to travel across the room. It was so soothing."
Toni Amorosi, a long-time neighbor of Christman's, remembers a day when Corkey's appearance wasn't so soothing.
"When our daughter had her ninth birthday party, he came over in a gorilla suit with flowers and a banana," remembered Amorosi, a former math teacher at Duanesburg. "He sent a group of screaming girls into the house. He really knew how to make an entrance. He really was a character. It was very sad when he and Pat moved away."
"He had crazy, creative ideas about positively everything," said Sodders, who said her father got his nickname at an early age because he was a real 'corker.' "He was irreverent about most everything, but serious when the occasion required it. He loved life. He passed away way too early."