Aris Allen's extraordinary life as a physician, community leader, politician, activist and humanitarian has been universally acclaimed inthe days since his death Feb 8. The breadth of his achievements is matched only by the staggering number of people whose lives he touched.
I'd like to take a moment to honor another aspect of Dr. Allen's distinguished legacy: the leadership he exerted to further the arts in Anne Arundel County.
When it came to support for culture in our area, he was one of a kind.
How remarkable it was to be greeted at the door of an Annapolis Opera performance by this man -- this Maryland institution -- who graciously took the time to hand me a program and encourage me to enjoy the performance.
"There was nothing he wouldn't do for us," said Harry Lindauer, president of the Annapolis Opera Company. "Any time we needed his advice, his presence, his contacts, he was there."
"He was a tremendous presence on our board," echoed Thea Lindauer. "Whenever we had to make a difficult decision, I was always reassured by the gentle, persuasive way he had of making his point. He was sucha presence in our midst, and we will miss him terribly."
Annapolis Opera is planning to honor Dr. Allen's memory, perhaps with a special Aris Allen award at the company's annual vocal competition. "It would be a fitting tribute," Harry Lindauer said.
Myra Shannonhouse, former president of the board of the Ballet Theater of Annapolis, also praised Dr. Allen's cultural activism. BTA, in fact, honored both Dr. Allen and his wife, Dr. Faye Allen, at its first testimonial dinner some years back.
"He was a member of our advisory board, where he helped us choose new board members," Shannonhouse said. "He was the best community liaison we ever could have had. And he was always there for us: At performances, at our fashion show, we could always count on his presence."
Ava Shields, conductor of the Arundel Vocal Arts Society, is another great admirer. "There wasn't a concert we gave that he didn't attend," she said of her most distinguished board member. "He even served as a narrator at some of our concerts. He was magnificent. You couldn't help but feel that unique warmth and support."
That warmth and support was also felt by those seeking to convey the richness of African-American culture to the Annapolis community.
"He was intensely interested in the history and culture of his people," recalled Barbara Jackson, acting director of the Banneker-Douglas Museum of Annapolis. "The black experience in Maryland and in the nation fascinated him. He was in the forefront of everything we've done here at the museum."
Indeed, as Yevola Peters of the county's Economic Opportunity Commission remembered, he was one of the museum's founding fathers. "When the Mount Moriah Church was scheduled to be demolished, Dr. Allen was instrumental in saving the building thatbecame Banneker-Douglas. He helped raise the money and get it off the ground. Nothing was too menial for him to do."
A cherished friend of Dr. Allen's, Peters speculated about his motivation: "I think hewas simply dedicated to raising the quality of life for others, and with culture and the arts, he found a way to dojust that."
When Dr. Allen became involved with artistic endeavors, it was often at the behest of his colleague and friend, Jean Jackson, whose own Herculean efforts on behalf of the arts have won her a well-deserved seat on the county Arts Commission.
"Aris always called me 'Madame President,' " she said, smiling, "because I frequently put him to work on something or other I was running. He never turned me down."
He even agreed to appear on stage for her at an "Ebo Arts" Christmas program back in the 1970s.
"I needed an angel Gabriel just to stand there in a white robe and hold a scroll, and he agreed to do it," she remembered. "I didn't want him to be bored, so I taped some naughty cartoons in the scroll he was holding to give him something to look at. He started to quiver and shake, holding in his laughter when he saw them. And everyone in the audience was saying, 'Look how nervous Dr. Allen is,' as he was trying to keep from breaking up totally. We've laughed about that ever since."
"His zest for learning and growing as aperson was immense," Jackson continued. "When he and Dr. Faye were honored by the ballet company, I teased him: 'What are you going to do, wear a tutu from now on?'
" 'Well, if I have to,' he said, laughing at me.
"At Colonial Players, the opera, Pomoja Productions, wherever, there would always be that familiar tap on the shoulder. Ariswas there," Jackson said.
The critic Ernest Newman once wrote: "Aman responds or fails to respond to certain music by virtue not onlyof what the music is, but of what he is."
That Aris Allen responded to so much of that music -- music of the voice, of the dance, of his heritage, of the human heart -- is truly a measure of the kind of man he was.
The arts community of Anne Arundel County has lost a tremendous friend with his passing.
Phil Greenfield is a theater and music critic for The Anne Arundel County Sun.