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South End mourns the loss of community gem

Michael Nutt, a virtuoso violin player, passed away Friday. The beloved Langley resident was a familiar face on the island’s arts scene. - Photo courtesy of Diane Kendy
Michael Nutt, a virtuoso violin player, passed away Friday. The beloved Langley resident was a familiar face on the island’s arts scene.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Diane Kendy

BY PATRICIA DUFF AND MICHAELA MARX WHEATLEY

South Whidbey Record

Longtime Langley resident Michael Nutt, who died peacefully at home last Friday, did not want the community to feel bad about his death.

“Don’t feel sorry for me,” he told his wife, Diane Kendy. “I’ve had 75 wonderful years.”

Nutt leaves a huge gap in the community, however, where he acted as an activist, artist and friend for nearly 13 years.

“He had a full, wonderful life,” said Fran Abel, a long-time friend. “But we all wanted 20 more years.”

A native of England, Nutt was an accomplished musician with a 30-year career as a classical violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

He and his wife retired to Whidbey Island in 1995, where they quickly became involved in the community — both politically and artistically.

Less than two weeks ago, he shocked his friends and acquaintances when he announced he was dying of cancer and that he had not much time left.

Kendy said that he was grateful that his death would not be a long, drawn-out ordeal and that he was so pleased he was able to celebrate with friends before his death.

Whidbey Island Center of the Arts, which Nutt helped to found a dozen years ago, held a community celebration of Nutt’s life on March 25 at Mukilteo Coffee Roasters.

WICA also produced a concert in his honor at South Whidbey High School the following evening. Hundreds of community members attended both events. WICA honored Nutt at the concert by naming the WICA stage the Michael Nutt Mainstage.

When the couple got word that Nutt’s death was close at hand, Kendy had suggested they have a party now, so he could be present.

“He had always said he didn’t want a funeral or a memorial when he died but that he wanted people to have a party for him,” Kendy said.

Kendy said although her husband was in great pain, the two events pleased him very much. He was also happy to have 10 members of his family, all of whom live far away, come to the island to be with him.

“He even found the strength to make two speeches,” a teary-eyed Kendy said.

Kendy recalled his famous sense of humor.

“He could always make a crack,”

she said.

And knowing that his wife was “mechanically challenged,” as Kendy put it, he was busy in the end trying to show her how to work the VCR and deal with the tricky plumbing system in their Langley home.

“We were really good partners,” Kendy said. “I was very organized, but he was the mechanical one.”

Linda Morris, a local musician and Nutt’s friend, knew him as a multi-faceted person. Nutt was well-respected as a musician in the artist community on the South End and created the Saratoga Chamber Players.

“He was also a gentleman of the first order. He often took the high road in difficult times, easing the situation and placating everyone’s feelings,” Morris said.

WICA’s executive director Stacie Burgua had similar impressions of Nutt as a man that never said “never.”

“Think of the most magical musical moments at WICA and I can guarantee that Michael was behind them,” Burgua said.

“From the Figgy Pudding holiday concerts to the fabulous Master and Commander, Red Violin and Amadeus concerts. Who will ever forget the transformation of the lobby into an Olde English Pub called the Sticky WICA? Michael designed the entire set out of Styrofoam.

“He was our mentor and our best advocate. He always had a positive attitude; and he never thought any task too menial, nor too Herculean if it needed to be done,” Burgua said.

The term “Renaissance Man” was used more than once by friends who described Nutt. He was a skilled woodworker and a member of the Whidbey Island Woodworker’s Guild.

“He had one of those creative minds which wrapped itself around any opportunity for innovation. He had a curious mind and loved learning about new things. He wasn’t shy about rolling up his sleeves and doing whatever needed doing, whether it was moving a piano or rescuing a wounded eagle,” Morris said.

Nutt also liked to work with metal, and was recently busy helping to design a future scene shop for WICA.

“He was calling steel artists throughout the country trying to get ideas for a steel structure for the scene shop,” Kendy said.

Nutt had recently taken Tyler Raymond, WICA’s technical director, on a tour of his shop so that Raymond

Raymond

would know which tools he had available, Kendy said. He wanted to donate them to the theater after his death.

Nutt’s generous spirit was known by many.

“Michael was inclusive. He never wanted to leave anyone out, or exclude anyone from participation,” Morris said.

“I am so thankful to have known Michael for these many years. It will take a whole gaggle of us musicians to equal one Michael. He was my buddy and I will miss him so.”

“He had the best sense of humor, often at the expense of social correctness,” Burgua added. “I’ve always thought of him as the man with the perfect name.”

Kendy mentioned Nutt’s undying activism in the musicians union and how he fought for six years to bring equality to all the musicians in the orchestra.

Because of Nutt, Kendy said, all the major orchestras now have “revolving strings” which means that every two weeks each musician, except those who are first chair, rotates to the next chair.

He also initiated the “Rule of 90” in the musicians union. This means that instead of waiting until the age of 66, some musicians may retire with full benefits if their age and years of service add up to 90. This allows a person to retire at age 58 with 32 years of service, for example.

“He made that happen,” Kendy said.

His sense of justice and community mindedness found fruitful ground in Langley as well. He fought alongside his wife and other local activists to save Saratoga Woods, a 118-acre forest that was set to be logged.

“He had so many facets, it’s hard to limit him,” Kendy said.

He also used his diplomatic skills to mend a stormy relationship between South Whidbey’s premier arts organizations, WICA and the Island Arts Council, Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson said.

“He was chairman of the Island Arts Council and I was chairman of WICA. It was a time the relationship between the groups was tenuous at best. He helped repair it. He made it fun again,” Samuelson said.

The city of Langley declared the week of April 6 “Michael Nutt week” to honor his contributions to the city. And there were many, former Mayor Neil Colburn said.

“Whatever the topic was, be it housing, or a new road, however grave the subject, he brought light to it. He just beamed with positive energy,” Colburn said.

“Michael’s passing is significant to Langley. His energy, great humor, artistry, passion and grace will be missed in Langley and the South Whidbey community. He is well loved by us and I know this community will gather up Diane in our collective arms, share her pain and her love for this very extraordinary person,” Colburn said.

It is apparent that Kendy saw Nutt as the love of her life.

She spoke of a trip to Venice last November where the couple met several members of their family for a vacation.

“Michael was always up early and would come back when I was just waking up and tell me all the places he had been to. He always had so much energy,” she said. “He was so curious about everything. It was an enchanted time.”

The couple met at a New Year’s Eve party in Los Angeles on the eve of 1980 and then fell in love.

They married 18 years ago on June 17, 1990, after having been together for 10 years.

Their wedding was a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Kendy said the couple was still living in Los Angeles, Calif. and had been visiting Whidbey Island where they were working out the details of the septic system for their Langley home.

Near the county permitting office was the window to receive marriage licenses. Kendy said the couple decided on impulse that they would marry that coming Sunday and planned a small wedding at the Inn at Langley.

Fellow L.A. Philharmonic musician, longtime friend and Whidbey Island neighbor Ralph Pyle officiated.

Kendy and Nutt lost that friend a few years later. Pyle, too, died of cancer.

Kendy said Pyle had a long, drawn-out ordeal when he died that was hard for her husband to watch.

“Michael was so determined and he remained physical even right up until the end when I was having to help him,” she said.

Although the couple was opposed to any extra medical help when it was first suggested to them, Kendy said having a hospice nurse made all the difference in the world.

“P.C. Cable was the hospice nurse from Whidbey General Hospital. She was just incredible,” Kendy said. “She was unbelievably gentle, strong and informative. She told me it was an honor for her to take care of Michael.”

Kendy said that violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn made a special trip to Langley the days before Nutt died to play privately for him at home.

Pitcairn is a world-class soloist who travels the world with her famous “Red Violin.” Nutt had invited her to play at WICA for the last two years to much success and she became endeared with the island.

“The concerts on Whidbey Island that Michael invited me to play were not just normal concerts, but wonderful musical events that changed the direction of my life,” Pitcairn said. “They expanded my musical talents, not just as a performer, but as an entertainer.”

Pitcairn was in New York when she got word about Nutt’s imminent death.

“Michael called to tell me himself, and to say that he wanted me to have his violin bow. I had played on it once and admired it. I told him I wanted to come up to see him, and he started to cry on the phone and we hung up.”

Pitcairn arrived on Tuesday evening.

“I was carrying my Stradivarius, to show Michael one last time. Michael gave me a huge hug and his eyes were so happy.”

Pitcairn said that Nutt talked about his dreams for the South End’s radio station, KWPA, and WICA. He was passionate right to the end, she said.

He told Pitcairn that he wanted to sell his own violin and donate the proceeds to WICA.

“I began to play a movement of Bach on it and segued into the third movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto,” Pitcairn said.

“Everyone in the room noticed that Michael and I were connected,” she said. “He was mentally playing every note with me, and moving his head and hands with the accompaniment. I will never forget that magical afternoon and the feeling of playing the Mendelssohn Concerto for Michael; he and I knowing it was the last time I would ever see him and play for him.”

Pitcairn carried two violins back to L.A. with her that night.

She said Nutt’s violin will be bought by the Colburn School Conservatory instrument collection, where it will be loaned to gifted young soloists for performances.

She will keep his bow as a treasure and said she will make a donation to WICA in Nutt’s memory.

“I was constantly humbled by the scope of his vision,” Pitcairn said.

“He lives on in every note I play on the violin, and I know he will always be with me in my future concerts.”

Music was an emotional, yet anchoring force in his life, but it also helped Nutt bring the South End community together.

Abel, who knew him since he sprung into action to help save Saratoga Woods, assembled the Saratoga Chamber Players and raised money for the cause, said he freely shared his musical gift.

“He wasn’t selfish with his music. If it was playing ‘Happy Birthday’ at a party or a concert and everything in between. Cheerful music. Serious music. He didn’t flaunt it, but he didn’t withhold it either,” Abel said.

Then she recalled a recent lunch with Kendy and Nutt. It was a light affair with lots of laughs and good conversation, then Nutt bought her lunch.

“That was, of course, before we knew, or at least before I knew. He was always upbeat and generous. He was funny. No canned jokes. I hate canned jokes. He was always optimistic, putting a smile on somebody’s face,” she recalled.

That quality didn’t get lost in his final days.

“He showed generosity and humor to the bitter end. Maybe it was a sweet end. We got to say goodbye. What a gift,” Abel said.

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