Gustav "Gus" Baer, a retired executive and certified public accountant who had a second career as a pianist entertaining Nordstrom shoppers with his spirited renditions of Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin classics, died Oct. 9 of a neurodegenerative disorder at the Emeritus Pikesville senior-living facility.
The longtime Baltimore County resident was 84.
The son of a businessman and a concert pianist and music teacher, Mr. Baer was born in Baltimore and raised on Sequoia Avenue in the city's Ashburton neighborhood.
Mr. Baer began playing piano as a child and later studied piano at Peabody Preparatory and with Mel Clement, a Washington jazz pianist.
After graduating from Forest Park High School in 1946, Mr. Baer attended the University of Maryland, College Park, graduating in 1950. During his college years, he composed an opera that was performed at the campus.
Mr. Baer continued graduate studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, and he earned his CPA certificate from the old Baltimore College of Commerce.
He was married in 1955 to the former Peggy Strasburger, a ballet teacher and choreographer, who owned and operated her own dance studio, Peggy Lynne Studios.
Mr. Baer began his professional career working for the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse and the John Davis accounting firm. From there he pursued a career with the federal government when he joined the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood in 1962.
He later worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Budget and Finance and the Small Business Administration.
He retired in 1995, and music came to define the remainder of his life.
At day's end after returning from Washington to his home, Mr. Baer would unwind in the evening by spending hours at the piano, said a daughter, Susan Baer of Chevy Chase, a former Baltimore Sun editor and Washington correspondent.
"Growing up, my sister and I always felt like we had a soundtrack to our lives since there was always music in the house — Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Gershwin, Mozart, and my dad's own incredible compositions as well," recalled Ms. Baer. "I don't think we realized that not everybody had live beautiful music in the house all the time."
Mr. Baer decided to "make his passion for music his work," said Ms. Baer, when he began playing piano in 1995 at the Nordstrom department stores in Towson and Columbia.
It was Mr. Baer's renditions from the Great American Songbook that earned him legions of devoted fans who became "groupies," family members said, as shoppers paused for a few minutes to listen to him play.
"Aside from the shoppers who would stop what they were doing and stand at the piano listening to him play, there were regulars who would come and sit in one of the nearby chairs for their own Gus Baer concert," said another daughter, Betsy Baer Gates of Fairfax Station, Va.
"We were both single performers, which means we worked alone and different shifts. We would work three-, four- or five-hour shifts," said Shirley Jean Donleve, a Middle River pianist and longtime friend, who also performed at Nordstrom from 1992 to 2005.
"Gus was a class act. He was very good and unassuming, and he let his piano style speak for him. He always played very well," said Ms. Donleve.
"He always tried to oblige customers' requests and therefore became the favorite of many people," she said. "He did it all well, from popular music to show tunes like 'Phantom of the Opera.' He was a very versatile musician."
Mr. Baer was always well-dressed, said Ms. Donleve.
"Gus always looked like a fashion plate. When we first started, he'd wear a tuxedo. We really dressed up. Then, for a while, they let us wear casual clothes, but he always wore a jacket and tie," she said. "His wife kept him color-coordinated, and he always looked fresh and crisp."
Mr. Baer played from memory, eschewing sheet music
"He never used sheet music and had millions of songs in his head. He could play all week and never repeat a song," said his wife.
Mr. Baer also played with the Goldenaires, a jazz band that performed at community centers and senior centers throughout the metropolitan area.
He played chess and bridge, and loved opera, poetry and art. He had taught himself to play guitar and several years ago began taking flute lessons. He also taught himself calligraphy and took up pastel drawing and painting.
Mr. Baer listed to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts every Saturday. "In fact, he never missed a Saturday," his wife said. "He knew every opera and could hear one line of it and identify it."
He also was a devoted fan of the TV quiz show "Jeopardy," and family members and friends knew not to call him when it was on the air.
Family gatherings often featured Mr. Baer playing the piano, surrounded by children and grandchildren, said Ms. Baer.
Mr. Baer was an avid reader and would return home from the public library with his arms loaded with books ranging from detective stories to history to mathematics and foreign languages.
"He was a voracious reader and a knowledge-seeker, with a knack for anything involving wit, brain-teasers or numbers," said Ms. Gates.
"He would sometimes read books in French just for fun," said Ms. Baer, now a Washington writer. "He was a stickler for grammar and spelling. If there was ever a grammatical mistake in the newspaper, he would find it."
Mr. Baer used his accounting acumen as a volunteer helping prepare income tax returns for senior citizens.
"He was a reserved and gentle man. He was known for his easygoing manner, sparkling smile, quick wit and devotion to his family, which extended to his beloved pets," recalled Ms. Baer.
Services were Oct. 12 at Temple Sinai in Washington.
In addition to his wife and two daughters, survivors include a sister, Joanne Wolf of Rockville; and three grandchildren.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun