David S. Donovan, a retired Enoch Pratt Free Librarian who was an expert on classical music and H.L. Mencken’s Saturday Night Club, as well as a longtime panelist on WBJC-FM radio’s “Face the Music,” died Sept. 27 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Northeast Baltimore. The Butchers Hill resident was 68.
“First off, Dave had an incredible love of music from the standard classic repertoire, and he loved Haydn and we connected on that,” said Jonathan Palevsky, WBJC program director and host of “Face the Music.”
“He had a level of expertise which was almost an obsession, and if it was less than a quality performance he’d say, ‘I like it because I can,’ and he wasn’t often wrong and when he was, he took it well,” Mr. Palevsky said. “He had a lot of love for the performers and the music, and Dave was his own man. He was a definite introvert and had strong opinions.”
Dr. Robert J. Brugger, a former longtime Hopkins University Press regional editor and author, wrote in an email: “What a huge loss for the Pratt, students of local music history, and Baltimore generally.”
“David Donovan was a professional musician and very proud of that fact,” wrote Dr. Vincent Fitzpatrick, a retired longtime Loyola High School English teacher, who is curator of the H.L. Mencken Collection at Pratt, wrote in an email. “He knew his subject thoroughly but wore his learning lightly.”
David Shane Donovan, son of Maj. Jesse Donovan, a career Army officer, and Ruth Donovan, credit manager of Hamburger’s men’s clothes, was born at Fort Meade and raised in Dundalk, where he graduated in 1972 from Patapsco High School.
His love of classical music began at an early age when he began studying violin as an elementary school student. During high school, he mastered the bassoon and was selected for the Maryland All-State Band.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in music in 1976 from what is now Towson University and then enlisted in the Army where he was stationed at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and served as a member of the Continental Army Band.
During his Army years, he marched in the Bicentennial Parade of Yorktown, Virginia, the Rose Bowl Parade and in President Ronald W. Reagan’s inaugural parade. As a member of the Woodwind Quintet, he toured Europe and “fulfilled a lifetime dream of visiting Beethoven’s birthplace,” said his sister, Sharon Donovan of Butchers Hill.
After being discharged from the service, he managed the Record Masters store in the Rotunda before joining the staff of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in 1981 on Cathedral Street, first working in telephone reference before moving on to the library’s Fine Arts Department. He retired in 2009.
It was at Pratt where Mr. Donovan fell under the spell of the musical archives of the Saturday Night Club, a social club centered on classical music. The club was founded in 1904 by H.L. Mencken, a Baltimore Sun newspaperman and author.
“David developed a complete knowledge of the Saturday Night Club and its music. This group was founded in 1904 and lasted until 1950, two years after the debilitating stroke of H.L. Mencken, its most famous member. Mencken always played second piano — always fortissimo (loudly), he liked to remark. He wrote as he played,” wrote Dr. Fitzpatrick.
“Over the decades, David lectured on the Saturday Night Club and its music. He wrote a variety of magazine articles. He constructed wonderful exhibits at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and he did a video presentation on Mencken and music. He also contributed to a number of tours of the Mencken Collection,” he wrote. “The visitors very much enjoyed his lively and witty expertise.”
When the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine was celebrating its 100th anniversary of the establishment of its medical arts department that had been founded by Max Brodel, a member of the Saturday Night Club, its current director, Gary Lees, contacted Messers. Fitzpatrick and Donovan to see if there was a formula for beer in Mencken’s papers.
They located one and Brewers Art graciously offered to brew what became known as Brodel Brew to honor the department’s founding.
“While Dave was passionate about his opinions, he liked a good beer,” Mr. Palevsky said.
“Face the Music” first went on air at WBJC 36 years ago and “for more than 20 years David was a regular on our panel,” Mr. Palevsky said.
The Morning Sun
From 1994 to 1999, Mr. Donovan, on a guest basis, would write music criticism for The Baltimore Sun when its regular critics were away, amassing a byline count of hundreds of articles.
In a 1999 review of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola,” Mr. Donovan wrote: “Conductor Will Crutchfield was generally reliable. One minor reservation: The opening overture was just too straightforward. Its crescendo section was simply earthbound. One has to start the crescendo at a much lower dynamic and then milk it to get the true fire in Rossini’s musical heart.”
“He was a real genius who was interested in everything,” said Tim Smith, former Sun music critic, who donated CDs that came to The Sun for review to the Enoch Pratt music collection, which was administered by Mr. Donovan.
“He’d take everything, even the most wackiest or esoteric CDs , because he was interested in everything. I knew I’d never listen to multiple copies and he loved having all of them,” Mr. Smith said. “One time, we filled his car and there was only room for him to drive. He really had genuinely universal taste.”
In addition to music and H.L. Mencken, Mr. Donovan was an avid Orioles and Baltimore Colts fan.
Plans for a celebration-of-life-gathering are incomplete.
In addition to his sister, Mr. Donovan is survived by two brothers, Robert Donovan of Germantown and Frederick “Fritz” Donovan of Essex.