Industrialist, philanthropist and the greatest music enthusiast in Rochester’s history. George Eastman sought to make his favorite city a world-renowned musical center. He established the Eastman Theatre, Eastman School of Music, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, WHAM and more.
He was born in the Town of Marshall south of Utica NY. At the age of five his family moved to Rochester where his father began to establish the Eastman Commercial College. When His father died the college failed and the family was faced with financial hardship. Young George dropped out of school at the age of 14 and found work as an office boy so he could help support the family. His work ethic and sharp mind propelled him up the latter of success.
By 1874 ten years after he quit school to work for three dollars a week he found that he had enough discretionary money to take a vacation. When he told a co-worker that he planned a trip to Santo Domingo the suggestion was made that he document the trip by taking photographs. At the time you needed a mule to carry all the paraphernalia necessary to do the job. This was how he first became interested in photography and though he never did make that trip by 1880 he was ready to start his own photography business. Several inventions and a few years later Kodak was born in 1888 and the rest of course is history; Rochester’s history, and more to the point Rochester’s music history.
Eastman said, “It is fairly easy to employ skillful musicians. It is impossible to buy appreciation of music. Yet without a large body of people who get joy out of it, any attempt to develop musical resources of any city is doomed to failure “ In 1921 he purchased the DKG institute of Musical Art and transformed it into The Eastman School of Music. Since then the school has become world renown with an endless stream of brilliant students and faculty. The alumni alone say it best: Mitch Miller, Ron Carter, Chuck Mangione, Renee’ Fleming, Steve Gadd, Jeff Tyzik and many more.
He then built the magnificent Eastman Theater that opened in 1922. It was designed primarily for silent film, but has become a primary concert hall for all sorts of music. Next came Kilbourn Hall in 1924, named after his mother’s maiden name. It is considered to be among the finest chamber music halls in the world. The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra was founded by Eastman in 1922. It’s an amazing orchestra for a city this size and recognized nationally for artistic and organizational excellence, creativity and innovation.
The list of philanthropic gifts to the city from Eastman goes on and on, but there is another aspect of his great generosity and empathy for his fellow man that often gets over looked. He said, ”…It is necessary for people to have an interest in life outside of their occupations…I am interested in music personally, and I am led thereby to want to share my pleasure with others…” In 1919, he gave one third of his own holdings of Kodak stock to his employees as a wage dividend. Next he established a retirement annuity, life insurance, disability benefits, not to mention all the good paying steady jobs his company provided. With this kind of stability and security the middle class grew and found the time and had the money to go out and enjoy music and events. They could afford to send their children to the fine schools in the area, including the Eastman School. With the exception of three or four others, Eastman was the king of philanthropy in his day. But you won’t see his name on nearly as many buildings and monuments as the Carnegies or Rockefellers of the time. Eastman often made donations anonymously or under fictitious names because he didn’t do it for the publicity. He did it because he truly enjoyed seeing others have a good time and a good life.
At the age of 77 suffering from spinal stenosis George Eastman put his estate in order and on March 14, 1932 he died by his own hand. The note he left simply said, “My work is done. Why wait?”