Kenneth Fischer

Kenneth C. Fischer 

Today’s honoree is well known to nearly everyone in the room for his warm personality and endless energy – and also because he is widely regarded one of the Michigan’s Leaders and Best.  In the world of the performing arts, Kenneth C. Fischer is an established star and it is my pleasure and honor to share with you some of his many achievements that not only exemplify Rotary’s motto to Service Above Self but also reflect how UMS under Ken’s leadership has contributed Rotary International’s mission of building peace and understanding at home and around the world through culture and the performing arts.   

For those who don’t know Ken, he was born and raised in Plymouth, Michigan in a musical family that often piled into station wagon to attend concerts at Hill Auditorium.  Brothers Jerry and Norman and sister, Martha, are all musicians.  Young Ken was both a jock and musician:  a swimmer on his high school’s state championship team and a talented French horn player who was first chair in the top Interlochen orchestra.  There he met the love of his life, Penny Peterson, from Iowa.  Penny says Ken had “high horn chops” and she first fell in love with his gorgeous sound from her seat in the flute section two rows in front.  There’s a great photo of these two charmers standing under a tree that looks like it came from central casting. 

Ken left Michigan for a degree in religion from the College of Wooster, where he was honored as a distinguished alumnus and returned to begin a doctoral program in higher education at U of M.  There he reconnected with Penny, who was pursuing her own doctorate at the School of Music.  They married during grad school and Penny got a job as assistant to Gail Rector, the second President of the University Musical Society.  In 1969, Ken joined the UMS staff to help launch the short-lived Fairlane Festival on the grounds of the old Ford mansion in Dearborn.  Perhaps that experience kindled the impresario flame in Ken – or at least made him restless – because he soon took extended leave from his doctoral program for a job in Washington, D.C., first as an executive at a higher education association and later as a management consultant.  At the same time, Ken became a part-time concert and event presenter who met with increasing success.  One winter he had a lot riding on a little known British group called the King Singers at the Kennedy Center – and a blizzard hit town.  When Ken managed to fill the hall despite D.C.’s notorious aversion to snow, people in the business took notice and word got back to his Michigan friends.  So, when Gail Rector retired in 1987, Ken was urged to submit his resume – and the rest is history – really interesting history!

Ken Fischer is only the third President in UMS’s 133 year existence.  The position and the organization were largely created by the legendary Charles Sink (also a founder of our Club).  When Ken succeeded Gail Rector, UMS faced steep challenges: a substantial deficit that had to be erased, a strained relationship with the University, a struggling state economy that forced schools to cut arts programs, lack of an education or outreach program of its own and declining grant support for classical music. 

Ken stepped into the UMS breach with new energy, vision and amazing  willingness to meet with and listen to community leaders, volunteers, donors, and other arts and culture groups, conversations that began to change the image of UMS as an insular, elitist institution.  Ken worked with the UMS Board on a major management restructuring, an inspired decision that allowed him to hire a young, highly talented team that helped transform UMS Programming, Marketing, Financial Management and Development – and Education.  Three of those early hires are still part of the illustrious M-Team and regarded as tops in their respective fields – Director of Finance and Budget, John Kennard, Director of Programming, Michael Kondziolka and Sara Billman, Marketing Director.  Rounding out the team today are our own Margie McKinley, Development Director, and Jim Leija, Director of Education and Audience Engagement.

Under Ken’s leadership, UMS has become known internationally for innovative programming that has kept Ann Arbor a prize destination for debuts and encores of the world’s finest artists and ensembles.  Just this past weekend, "Einstein on the Beach," which was remounted and performed here last January, received the 2013 Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production of the Year at the Royal Opera House in London!  UMS’s creative residencies inspire and enrich students at the School of Music Theater and Dance - from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road to last year’s San Francisco Symphony.  These arts integration projects have won praise and historic funding from the Mellon Foundation to support future collaborations across the spectrum of the University’s schools and programs.  Indeed, UMS’ education and audience engagement program rivals that of the Kennedy Center, with which it partners on a number of projects to enhance K-12 arts curricula and offers lifelong learning opportunities through UMS Night School, prelude talks and post-concert conversations with the artists.  Ken and the M-Team are also leaders in the Major University Presenters (MUPs) group and have led many initiatives to better utilize the arts as a force for creative teaching and learning. 

Ken is a world class networker with dozens of wonderful stories from more than 25 years at the UMS helm.  Less well known are the accolades he has earned for his contributions to the presenting field as speaker, workshop leader, writer, consultant, panelist, and U.S. State Department cultural ambassador to Brazil, China, Lithuania, and Mexico.  He chairs the board of National Arts Strategies and the National Advisory Board of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project.  He is a board member of the Sphinx Organization has served on the board of Interlochen Center for the Arts where he remains active.  In 2011 the International Society for Performing Arts accorded Ken the prestigious Fan Taylor award, the field’s highest honor.

Although Ken is often on the road, he is active in local economic development efforts, sits on many university committees and search panels, is an enthusiastic champion of Ann Arbor and the state of Michigan and always has time to mentor students – and take photos of Junior Rotaraians.  Ken is also a devoted family man. He is tremendously supportive of Dr. Penelope Peterson Fischer and her distinguished career as a professional flutist, past president of the National Flute Association, principal flutist of the Ann Arbor Symphony and co-founder and first Director of the Ann Arbor School for the Performing Arts.  Ken and Penny are the proud parents of Matt Fischer, Director of the App Store at Apple who lives with his wife, Renee and sons Alex and Reid in the San Francisco Bay area.  Incidentally, son Matt also has impresario chops: while an undergrad at the University of Virginia, he served as Music Director of the Virginia Gentelmen, an a capella singing group like the U-M Friars.

As mentioned at the outset, one of Ken and the UMS team’s hallmarks is introducing Ann Arbor and SE Michigan to a panoply of global performing artists, helping all of us understand and appreciate the rich traditions of other peoples and cultures. As a result, UMS is one of the top recruiting assets for U of M and brings the best talent from around the world to this community.  So here we are after another tremendously varied UMS season that celebrated the 100th anniversary of Hill Auditorium.  It is the perfect time to honor the iconic leader who has done so much to make it possible – and who has committed to staying for another few years to ensure the institution’s long term financial stability.  Ladies and Gentlemen, please join me in recognizing Kenneth C. Fischer, a worthy recipient of the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor’s Distinguished Service Award. (Remarks by Anne Glendon, May 1, 2013)