Thelma Goldberg was the business manager of the Little Orchestra Society in New York City when she married, moved to Boston, and first set foot in Symphony Hall.
“I think I was probably in awe,” she recalled in a 1999 interview with the Globe. “I just felt this was close to a religious experience when you’re overcome with the beauty of a place. I don’t think that feeling has ever changed.”
Starting out as a volunteer, she worked with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 50 years, rising to become a life trustee. Along the way she played an instrumental role in creating the archives that chronicle the BSO’s history back to 1881, and helped write a book that teaches others how to lead informative tours through the building she fell in love with as a new arrival.
“Symphony Hall really lends itself to elegance,” she said in 1983.
Mrs. Goldberg, who as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College had aspired to some sort of work with music, died Saturday in her Cambridge home of complications from Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body disease. She was 80.
“It’s such a fabulous building and I love to show it off,” Mrs. Goldberg said in 1983 as she led a 90-minute stroll through BSO history.
She noted, for example, that Isabella Stewart Gardner and her husband preferred the balcony seats A-15 and A-16. “She liked being able to see the conductor’s face,” Mrs. Goldberg said. “She liked seeing the hands of the pianist.”
A longtime tour guide herself, Mrs. Goldberg knew Symphony Hall as well as she did her own home. She would glance at the seats and mention that each formerly had a wire rim underneath where men could set their hats, until they were removed after women complained that the wire holders tore their stockings. She might mention in passing that one wing hosted a bowling alley in a past life.
Her knowledge of Symphony Hall, BSO colleagues say, was surpassed only by her devotion to the organization. Elected to the Board of Overseers in 1982, Mrs. Goldberg chaired that board from September 1992 to August 1995, and was elected a trustee in 1994. Five years ago she was named a life trustee. She served on several committees, notably helping to create the archives committee, and in 1982 served on the Founding Executive Committee of Presidents at Pops. Mrs. Goldberg also founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra Shop.
“Her love and service went well beyond simply enjoying the music,” Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, said in a statement. “She was determined to help make the BSO better, and she succeeded in every area in which she endeavored, whether it was volunteering her time in the archives, organizing the gift shop, giving tours, or chairing the Board of Overseers. We are grateful for the legacy Thelma has left the BSO through her selfless dedication.”
Born Thelma Englander, she grew up in London. She and her older sister were among the children the British government sent to live in the countryside when the German military began its London bombing campaign during World War II.
Her father, an executive in the insurance division of Shell Oil Co., was sent to the United States, where the family settled in Larchmont, N.Y., a New York City suburb.
Mrs. Goldberg was the first in her family to graduate from college. “My four years at Mount Holyoke were probably the four most wonderful years of my existence up until then,” she said for a series of alumnae interviews posted on the college’s website. She studied comparative religion, graduating in 1955.
Music was a major interest, “but I didn’t play an instrument other than the piano, and certainly only for my own consumption or my family’s consumption.” An interview led to the job as business manager of the Little Orchestra Society. “It was in midtown Manhattan,” she said in the Mount Holyoke interview, “and it was a dream come true.”
‘Her love and service went well beyond simply enjoying the music. She was determined to help make the BSO better, and she succeeded in every area in which she endeavored.’Mark Volpe, Boston Symphony Orchestra managing director
That fall, friends set her and Ray Goldberg up on a blind date for the Harvard-Yale football game in New Haven, Conn. He was teaching at Harvard and flew to New York, where he rented a limousine. They went to the game and then back to New York for dinner and dancing. “At the end of the evening, I was so enamored of her that I proposed to her in the back of the limousine on the way back to Larchmont,” said her husband, who is the George M. Moffett professor emeritus of agriculture and business.
They married in 1956 and lived in Brookline before moving to Cambridge, keeping a home in Centerville. The Goldbergs “were an extraordinary couple,” said John Thorndike, a BSO life trustee who, with Mrs. Goldberg, established the archive committee as an important part of preserving the organization’s history.
“She was an inspiring committee member and director and leader in this area,” Thorndike said.
Bridget Carr, the BSO’s senior archivist, praised the “foresight that Thelma and John had to say, ‘We really need to do something with the archives. We need to get an archives program going.’ ”
Many of the BSO’s records were stored in old filing cabinets when Mrs. Goldberg began pushing for improvements.
A few months ago, the archives moved into a new, climate-controlled space just below ground level on Huntington Avenue. The archives, Carr said, include 350,000 pages of digitized concert programs and a complete performance history of more than 17,000 concerts that can be searched online.
“We’ve come so far from when Thelma started the archives committee,” Carr said. “If she was behind you, she was behind you all the way. She didn’t back down from people. She was like a force of nature in everything she approached — not to aggrandize herself, but to support the organization.”
In addition to her husband, Mrs. Goldberg leaves two sons, Marc of Wellesley and Jeffrey of Chemnitz, Germany; a daughter, Jennifer Jaques of Medfield; a sister, Patricia Main of Aventura, Fla.; and six grandchildren.
A service will be held at 10 a.m. April 14 in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.
Mrs. Goldberg, who encouraged the aspirations of her son Jeffrey as he became a concert pianist, also was involved with youth education initiatives. She served on the Board of Advisors of Project STEP — String Training and Educational Program — for students of color, an organization that promotes racial and ethnic diversity in classical music.
At home, she created sculptures and paintings, and practiced needlework and calligraphy. “She was remarkable in the sense that if she found something interesting to do, she attacked it and became incredibly proficient at it, whether it was in the arts or French cooking,” her son Marc said. “She had a real passion about everything she did.”
Patricia Krol, a longtime friend who is executive director of Emmanuel Music, said Mrs. Goldberg “was very deeply engaged. She was no nonsense, she spoke what she felt, and if she identified something that needed to be done, she would be the one to get it off the ground and rolling.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.