CCM’s sesquicentennial surprise: a gift from family of founder Clara Baur

Tom Baur

Tom Baur

Tom Baur had heard the family stories since he was a kid, growing up on the family farm in Michigan in the 1940s.

“Family mythology” is what he called them.

There were stories about Emil Baur, founder of a utopian community called Ora Labora (“pray, work”) in 1857 and about Emil’s descendants, who spread out around the nation and had huge impacts wherever they went.

There was William – Uncle Billy – who headed west and helped build the German department at the then-tiny University of Colorado in Boulder. There was Billy’s wife, Grace, who had taught in Constantinople during the Ottoman Empire and was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Berlin in 1904. There was a banker named Theodore. And Wanda, who married a composer and spent the rest of her life in the high-flying music circles of New York City.

And then there was great-great-great-aunt Clara.

Clara Baur moved to Cincinnati and started giving piano lessons. It was one of the few respectable professions for an unmarried woman in the 1860s. In 1867, she took a step that would, in time, have a monumental impact on the musical landscape of Cincinnati.

She rented a room at Miss Nourse’s School for Young Ladies on Park Avenue in Walnut Hills. The students there, most of them the daughters of Cincinnati’s elite, mockingly called it “The Nursery.” Baur offered piano and voice lessons and gave her one-room operation the grandiose name of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

CCM’s birthplace – a one-room studio in Miss Nourse’s School for Young Ladies in Walnut Hills

The name may have been overblown. But it reflected Baur’s ambitious goal of turning her fledgling operation into a full-blown educational institution offering a full range of music-related courses.

As most of us know today, she achieved that goal. In 1955, her Conservatory merged with the Cincinnati College of Music to form the College-Conservatory of Music. Seven years later, it became part of the University of Cincinnati. And today, it is regarded as one of the top music schools in the nation.

In January, Tom Baur will come to Cincinnati to renew the Baur family’s relationship to CCM. He’ll be here for CCM’s 15th annual Moveable Feast gathering on Jan. 19. Many acts of generosity will be honored that evening, but it is unlikely that any of them will hold the sentimental significance of the $1.3 million trust that Tom and his wife Jeanne have set up for CCM. The bulk of the contribution – $1 million – is earmarked to endow scholarships, while the remainder will fund an endowment to maintain CCM’s Baur Room.

“The story of how the Baurs and CCM made contact again is incredible,” says bruce d. mcclung, CCM’s interim dean.

Ad for Cincinnati Conservatory of Music from the first Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra program

Ad for Cincinnati Conservatory of Music from the first Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra program

Fifteen years or so ago – no one is sure of the precise year – Jeanne met two women who collected miniature books. A former research librarian, Jeanne was eager to dig deeper into the field. Her friends referred her to the president of the Miniature Book Society – Mark Palkovic, a librarian at CCM.

Jeanne was aware of the connection between her husband’s family and CCM. But Palkovic, in the way that good librarians so often do, offered her even more information. And more of the history that Jeanne, an active genealogist, was eager to hear.

“He was so helpful and so generous with his time,” Jeanne recalls. “So I sent the library a small check.”

Jump forward about a decade, to 2016. In a routine review of past donations, Major Alston, a regional vice president of the University of Cincinnati Foundation, noticed the Baurs’ past contributions to the CCM library. They weren’t large – only $100 or so, recalls Jeanne. But it was enough that Alston called and asked if he might meet with them.

“It was at this luncheon that they disclosed their family history and relationship with CCM,” says Karen Tully, CCM’s senior director of development.

The news may have been big. But it was far from a glamorous occasion, says Jeanne.

“We took him to this sleazy restaurant in town,” laughs Jeanne. “We thought we could dissuade him from returning. Tom is very honest. He said, ‘We’re going to leave you a chunk of change. But we don’t have any money to give you now’.”

Tom, you see, is a successful entrepreneur. He’s the founder, CTO and board chair of Meadowlark Optics in Frederick, Colorado. But most of the Baurs’ assets are tied up in a 2,000-acre ranch in the Pawnee National Grassland northeast of Denver where they raise Black Angus cattle. Cattle and land may make for a healthy balance sheet, says Tom. But short-term liquidity is a very different thing.

“In order to make a living ranching, you have to run about 400 mother cows,” explains Tom. “We’ve got about 50. That must be a sign of some intellectual shortcoming on my part, but we like the lifestyle here. Ranching keeps you humble. And we’re proud to be part of the 1 percent who feed the 99 percent.”

The ranch represents an interesting twist in Tom’s life since, by his own admission, he couldn’t wait to leave the family farm and head off to study astrophysics at the University of Michigan. Despite the distance of so many miles and so many years, though, there has never been any doubt as to the focus of the contributions they will leave behind.

“Our emphasis is education,” says Tom. “We both were blessed with education, and it changed our lives. That’s where we would rather leave our money. And the arts, as we know, are important.”

The Baurs have also made arrangements to support the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Colorado – the department where Uncle Billy and Aunt Grace had such a great impact.

Tom is eager to visit Cincinnati and to make a more personal connection with Clara, the woman he heard so much about when he was a child.

Clara Baur

“Whenever she was mentioned, it was with some reverence,” he says. “I had a great-uncle who went down to visit her in Cincinnati and found her to be a pretty strong-willed individual.”

That sounds about right for a woman trying to launch such an ambitious venture in the middle of the 19th century. Clara’s path was riddled with bumps and economic uncertainty. She became well-connected, though, and was unafraid of asking anyone for help or money.

It probably didn’t hurt that one of her early students was Helen Herron, who went on to marry William Howard Taft, a future president and chief justice of the Supreme Court. (It’s no coincidence that a 1922 newspaper article about the conservatory’s class offerings listed the Hon. Charles P. Taft – Helen’s youngest son – as one of the group’s directors.)

Small wonder that Tom is looking forward to linking the family legend with the institution she launched 150 years ago.

And as for Jeanne, much as she would like a chance to see the sorts of students who will benefit from the scholarships, she’s not sure if she’ll be able to attend.

“I think Tom is going to have to do this alone,” she says. “That’s during calving season, so one of us has to stay here.”

CCM celebrates 150 years with Moveable Feast

Friday, Jan. 19, 6:30 p.m., CCM Village on the UC campus

The University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music is in the midst of a year-long celebration of its 150th anniversary.

That celebration will be in full swing at Moveable Feast, the annual mid-winter fundraiser that offers a veritable smorgasbord of the arts.

At Moveable Feast, guests choose when and what they want to see and do from artistic selections that include jazz, musical theater, piano, opera, acting, dance, choral and orchestra performance.

Former CCM dean Peter Landgren, a CCM alumnus who was recently named president of the UC Foundation and vice president for advancement at UC, will be the evening’s honoree. Landgren was interim senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at UC before being selected to lead the foundation.

Another CCM alum, Brian Newman, trumpeter, vocalist and bandleader for Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, will be featured at Moveable Feast.

Tickets now available. 513-556-2100 or

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