As a New England Conservatory librarian, Pat Maxfield fielded sheet music requests that sometimes were little more than partial spellings of a composer’s name that students had jotted down quickly and phonetically in class.
“He just had a way of understanding what people were looking for,” said his wife, Alice McDonald-Maxfield.
In the years before classical music stations posted playlists online, others hoped Mr. Maxfield could coax the names of symphonies from scraps of half-remembered melodies.
“He liked nothing better than to try to figure out what somebody had heard on the radio,” his wife said. “He’d ask a few questions and say, ‘I’ll do a little research.’ And he’d call back later and say, ‘I think this is what you were listening to.’ ”
Mr. Maxfield, who was head of technical services at the conservatory’s library and unofficially the keeper of all arcane knowledge, died of cancer March 7 in Sawtelle Family Hospice House in Reading. He was 57 and lived in North Reading.
Although his grasp of music and historical details about New England Conservatory were well-established, Mr. Maxfield was equally known for the breadth of his intellect.
“You know there are people you call encyclopedic? Well, Pat was the ultimate encyclopedia,” said Wallace Corey-Dunbar, a colleague who is coordinator of Firestone Library services at the conservatory. “Honestly, he knew something about everything. When he was in the hospice, he was reading a book on Mayan culture, ‘The Egyptian Book of the Dead,’ and he had two other books with him. He was really voracious when it came to knowledge.”
Mr. Maxfield “was also, I would say, informally the school historian,” said Jean Morrow, the conservatory’s director of libraries. “He ended up knowing everything there was to know about anyone and everything that had anything to do with the institution.”
Guards at New England Conservatory often asked Mr. Maxfield to give visitors informal tours if he had a free moment. No one was better equipped to introduce the school to a would-be student.
“He just adored the conservatory. It was his life blood,” Morrow said. “He also trained probably a generation of staff members. He was a wonderful teacher.”
Initially hired as a catalog assistant, Mr. Maxfield built his musical memory by listening to each composition he cataloged. He also read minutes of board of trustees meetings and perused old yearbooks and alumni magazines. And yet the end of each working day was just that. Devotion to his wife and to his daughter, Bethany, dwarfed his devotion to his job.
“Pat never stayed around much after work,” Morrow said. “He just considered his time at home with his family sacred as long as I’ve known him.”
Patrick Hackman Maxfield was born in Hicksville, Ohio, and was 12 when his family moved to Stone Mountain, Ga., where the high school had a good marching band.
He became a tuba player and initially attended a small Georgia college, overstaying the two-year course offerings until a professor suggested it was time to move on. He settled on New England Conservatory, where he studied tuba and voice, graduating in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in performance.
‘Pat was the ultimate encyclopedia.’Wallace Corey-Dunbar, coordinator of Firestone Library services at New England Conservatory
Mr. Maxfield had been there a year when Alice McDonald, a soprano, arrived at the conservatory. They married in 1982.
For much of his first year after graduation Mr. Maxfield was a clerk at the Harvard Coop before the conservatory hired him to work in the library.
There he stayed, establishing a national reputation for his expertise at music cataloging and receiving a master’s in library and information services in 1985 from the University of Rhode Island. Mr. Maxfield often cataloged about 4,000 items a year, about double what many in his field accomplished.
“You can’t replace him. Pat was unique,” Morrow said. “We have to hire another staff person, but we’re not going to go out and hire another Pat Maxfield. That person doesn’t exist.”
Tony Woodcock, president of New England Conservatory, presented the Rachdorf Award to Mr. Maxfield last fall for his service to the school.
“He was meticulous about everything. I mean, exacting,” Corey-Dunbar said. “There was no halfway with Pat. Work was work and you were precise.”
Away from the conservatory Mr. Maxfield played in symphonies, orchestras, a town band, and a brass quintet in Newton, Lexington, Salem, Reading, and other communities.
“Pat had a great deal of musicality, which is sometimes hard to think about with a tuba,” his wife said. “The tuba is often underrated as a not-so-expressive instrument. I think if you have a musically and spiritually motivated player, the tuba can sound beautiful.”
Mr. Maxfield, with his lovely baritone, also sang at Old South Church in Boston and in community theater productions. After Bethany was born, he settled in with the choir of Second Congregational Church in Winchester.
“My husband was a very spiritual guy,” Alice said. “We had spent easily the last 20 years singing in the choir in the church, which gave us the opportunity to be musical together.”
Diagnosed with colon cancer 14 years ago, Mr. Maxfield worried that he wouldn’t outlive Bethany’s childhood.
“He was just grateful,” his wife said. “He thought with the original diagnosis that he might not see his daughter graduate from high school, and he saw her graduate from high school and Pratt Institute and get a nice job. He was so proud of her accomplishments.”
A service filled with music was held for Mr. Maxfield. In addition to his wife and his daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., he leaves his parents, Robert and Dorothy Joline (Hackman) of Stone Mountain; and three brothers, Mike of Atlanta, Steve of Arlington, Texas, and Jack of Lilburn, Ga.
Among the hours Mr. Maxfield spent with Alice and Bethany were times they read together as a family.
“Our daughter was the perfect Harry Potter fan,” Alice said. When each book was published, “we would lock the door, unplug the phone, and make the computer off-limits. And then we would sit together and take turns reading to each other.”
As the series progressed, Bethany grew old enough “that we could go to midnight book-buying,” Alice said. “We would get in the car and drive home at 12:30 in the morning, and she would be reading to us from the back seat, getting a head start on the process. And we would get home and keep reading until we just couldn’t stay up.”Bryan Marquard
can be reached at