Miriam Schwab will go down in history as one of Ventura’s greatest benefactors. The successful real estate developer and music lover, who passed away in December 2017, made an enormous, $12 million donation to Ventura College.

“This is the largest gift ever to a Southern California community college,” says Anne Paul King, executive director of the Ventura College Foundation, “and the second largest gift in the state for a community college, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy gift database.”

A gift of this size is a game changer — and it just may help Ventura College transform itself into one of the most prestigious music education entities in the nation.

A passion for music

Miriam Schwab loved music, classical music in particular.

A highly successful real estate agent, the Pierpont resident owned over a dozen properties all over the county. But her true passion was for the violin. She never played professionally, but she was an enthusiastic and accomplished musician nevertheless, performing for many years with the Ventura College Symphony Orchestra (VCSO).

“She was there every Tuesday,” recalls Robert Lawson, VCSO music director/conductor and performing arts department chair. “She’d come to all the concerts. She just loved playing the violin.”

It was a love she shared with her husband, Henry Schwab Jr., who was a professional concert violinist. When he passed away in 2006, she decided to honor his memory with the Henry Schwab Violin and Viola Competition. She worked closely with Lawson (then the department chair of music; Dr. Burns Taft was music director/conductor of the symphony) to craft the competition, which gave contestants a chance to perform a full concerto with the VCSO and awarded cash prizes. (See story in Music, “Take a Bow.”)

“She was adamant. ‘I want to give the opportunity to Ventura College artists to excel at the highest degree,’ ” Lawson recalls.

Schwab and Lawson, who was named VCSO music director/conductor in 2010, became close as they worked together to develop the competition. They would talk about many things, but especially music, education and what Lawson hoped to do with Ventura College’s music department. They didn’t agree on everything, but their mutual regard, trust and respect was never in question. “We had some very heated conversations,” Lawson explains. “But they always ended with a hug.”

“In those conversations, it was clear to me that she understood what I was trying to do,” he continues, “I was looking out for Ventura College students. And I was looking out for the community. And of course, the donor’s wish. . . . I had many talks with her in her last year . . . and I have tried to make sure that I did exactly what she wanted.”

King had also been in talks with Schwab in the years leading up to her death. “She had informed us some years back that we’d receive an estate gift,” she recalls, although she notes that no one knew just how big that gift would be. King explains that one of the foundation’s jobs is “to ensure that the wishes of the donor . . . are respected,” and that Lawson has lived up to that.

“Robert Lawson worked for years with Miriam,” she says. “His commitment to fulfilling Miriam’s wishes is as strong as it could be. It is exactly what Miriam’s wishes were.”

“This is what philanthropy can do”

Schwab didn’t have children, and had no other family living at the time of her death on Dec. 24, 2017, at the age of 89. Instead, she left her considerable estate — estimated at some $22.5 million — to a number of organizations, including the Ventura Music Festival, Ventura Botanical Garden, Channel Islands Chamber Orchestra, the Boys & Girls Club and Music Academy of the West.

“There were something like 10 different organizations she gave money to,” Lawson notes.

But it was Ventura College that received the largest gift: a $12 million donation. The aquatics department received $1.8 million (see sidebar story, “An additional surprise”), with the remaining $10.2 million provided to the music department.

“It’s really going to enhance our music program beyond anything that was possible before,” says King. “This is what philanthropy can do — it can create something very, very special.”

The making of a music academy

Like most donations made to the college, the Schwab endowment is being managed by the Ventura College Community Foundation. But Lawson is in charge of developing the programs funded by her endowment — and his plans are ambitious.

Lawson had long hoped to develop a summer program, and he wasted no time getting the first one off the ground. The Miriam and Henry Schwab Academy of Music will take place this summer, June 17-July 7, with Lawson as director. Registration is still open through June 18, and late registrants may petition up to June 21.

Intermediate and advanced classes in chamber and orchestral movement will be offered, with several performance opportunities. The curriculum is designed to provide instruction at a professional level, and enhance students’ knowledge and musicianship in a very real, immersive way.

“That is going to be a very intense summer program,” Lawson emphasizes.

One of the academy’s biggest assets is its high-caliber faculty. Internationally renowned professional musicians have signed on to teach, including oboist Kimaree Gilad (whose résumé includes the L.A. Philharmonic and Chamber Orchestra, the Joffrey Ballet Orchestra and the Deutsche Opera of Berlin); French horn player Jon Titmus (American Ballet Theatre, New York City Opera and New West, Pacific and Pasadena symphonies) and GRAMMY Award-winning percussionist Matt Cook.

The idea is to provide the same sort of all-encompassing musical education as that offered at places like Tanglewood or Kinhaven. Similar programs can cost thousands of dollars. By contrast, the Schwab academy is shockingly affordable: around $71 per class, the same as any other summer session course at Ventura College.

Additionally, John Hammer MHS grants will be available on a first-come, first-served basis, and application information is available on the academy’s web page at www.venturacollege.edu/departments/academic/music/schwab-academy-of-music.

Lawson advertised this first academy throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and anticipates 50-60 students this inaugural year. Over time, however, he expects the academy to grow, in size, scope and prestige.

“It is a goal to be a conservatory,” Lawson explains. “It will offer a conservatory-type of education. And the academy is the seed for that.”

Lawson would love to see, say, Yo-Yo Ma or Joshua Bell come in as guest faculty. He’d also love to see the academy recognized across the nation, and even the globe. 

“I see this as becoming an international academy,” Lawson explains. “We’ll start locally . . . but we’ll attract students from all over the world. It’s going to take me three years to get it [there]. Then we can do the big push to get international recognition. By our third year we will have the flavor of a conservatory.”

Music program expansion

The Schwab endowment also specified funding for the continuation and expansion of the Schwab violin competition and for the overall development of instrumental music at Ventura College, both for its students and the community. Miriam Schwab was committed to all of these aims, and spoke with Lawson at length about the best way to carry them out.

“I knew her mindset and how much she was invested,” Lawson says. “She gave [the donation] knowing that . . . I’d honor who she is.”

Instruments are expensive, and not every promising musician can afford one. Schwab was devoted to giving all students the opportunity to succeed, so part of the endowment will be used to build an inventory of quality instruments students can practice on while attending Ventura College. Lawson also hopes to develop string quartets and similar chamber music-oriented groups.

With her deep and abiding love for instrumental music, Schwab also hoped to see the college’s orchestra, which she performed in for many years, really thrive. Lawson says that means more faculty.

Currently, Lawson teaches, conducts the orchestra, helps the various sections (strings, horns, etc.) and provides individual instruction as needed. It’s a lot of work for one person, and being stretched so thin, Lawson knows there’s room for improvement.

“We’re trying to develop a program in the orchestra so that we can address any issues developing players have,” he says. “We want to find people to help give specialized instruction.”

More faculty will allow for small group and private lessons, focused performance-based classes, and experienced professionals who can sit with students during rehearsals.

Putting passion into action

It should be noted that the Ventura College music department hasn’t benefited solely from the Schwab endowment. Helen Yunker — for whom the auditorium was named — left $2 million to the Ventura College Foundation when she died in July 2018. While the Schwab endowment will support orchestral music, the Yunker endowment will go toward the musical theatre program in particular, as well as the music department as a whole.

King sees both endowments as potent recognition of the value of art, the performing arts in particular.

“This is a time when support for the arts is being cut,” she says. “These two individuals really believed in the power of the arts in the community — and they put their passions into action.”

Lawson is excited about having the opportunity to bring orchestral music beyond the campus and into the community. He’d like to see collaborations with the Harmony Project, for example, and greater involvement with Ventura Music Festival. (Some VMF concerts already take place at the college’s performing arts center.)

He’d also like to offer more diverse programming. For example, he once had a showcase called Music Exposed, where internationally renowned artists would come and perform in a specially designed set reminiscent of a musician’s studio.

“I wanted to break the barrier,” he says of the concept. “I wanted the audience to feel they knew the performer.”

He played with another idea when the orchestra put on Scheherazade, the symphonic suite by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Ventura College artist Nathan Eck was commissioned to illustrate the story, with the images depicted on the screen while the orchestra played. The experience was something like a graphic novel set to music, and it drew in a more diverse audience.

“I’m always trying to do things off the beaten path,” he says.

The new music academy will, hopefully, bring greater recognition to Ventura College’s music program. An expanded music department will bring in more faculty who can better serve students. And a more robust orchestra offering a variety of performances, to appeal to all types of music lovers, will increase the college’s prestige and place in the community.

“We’re going to be one of the major music schools in the nation,” Lawson says with confidence. “It’s about enriching our community through the college. The college should be the center for the arts. And the community should see new, fresh horizons every year.”

King sees the Schwab endowment as powerful example of what philanthropy can achieve. “Giving a gift to a community college really makes a difference to our community and makes a lasting difference to our students as well. . . . Her legacy will be here for years and years, in perpetuity.”

Miriam Schwab made a significant donation to Ventura College, but the gift truly is one that the entire community will have the opportunity to enjoy.

Registration for the Miriam and Henry Schwab Academy of Music is open through June 18; late registrants can petition through June 21. For more information, and a schedule of performances, visit www.venturacollege.edu/departments/academic/music/schwab-academy-of-music.

“An additional surprise”

Tim Harrison never met Miriam Schwab, but he knew her by sight.

“I used to live in Pierpont, and I saw her ride her bike all the time,” recalls the Ventura College dean of athletics, performing arts and fine arts.

Schwab, a noted music lover, was also a very active person who particularly enjoyed swimming. When she wasn’t in the ocean, she’d put in laps at the Ventura College pool, and often brought her husband, Henry, there as well.

According to Harrison, the couple became very close to aquatics program staff members Larry Baratte, Mary Coulter and Mary McDonough-Giles.

“She had a real connection to our pool,” Harrison says of Miriam Schwab. “Their experience at that specific facility was a big impact on Henry and Miriam.”

The pool closed in 2009, but Schwab apparently never forgot about that “real connection”: She earmarked $1.8 million of her $12 million gift to Ventura College’s aquatics program. 

“It was just an additional surprise,” says Ventura College Foundation Executive Director Anne Paul King. “She believed in physical fitness.” 

Harrison and his staff have been putting together proposals to make the best use of that money. He says that it will be used for the continued support and improvement of the men’s and women’s water polo and swimming and diving programs — sports that continue to thrive at Ventura College even in the absence of a pool. (Practice takes place at the Ventura Aquatics Center on Kimball Road.) There are about 75 students total in both aquatics programs.

“[Schwab’s] support will help us with equipment, supplies and possibly personnel,” Harrison says. “There’s also a plan for scholarships.”

Some transfer scholarships — given to students who are continuing onto a four-year university — have already been awarded. In May, Ventura College students Caysee McCormick and Christina Jimenez each received a $4,000 Miriam and Henry Schwab Memorial Aquatic Scholarship. The exact number and monetary value of future scholarships may change, King says.

When asked what a gift of this size can mean to the college, Harrison says, “I would say that the gift has been a game changer. . . . This will put [Lawson’s] instrumental music program into a new stratosphere. And it has helped to stabilize our aquatics programming for years to come.”

“Just her appreciation and love for Ventura College — it’s an incredible gift.”