Cold rain is falling on a gray day in March, but it’s a welcome reprieve from the loop of snow that has played continuously for what feels like three years now. And it’s not the only glimmer of hope on the horizon.
Seated in the lobby of the Oberlin Inn, Karen Gebhart Flint is talking fondly of her days as an Oberlin student. The longtime trustee studied organ here. She fell in love with the harpsichord here. And from here she was set on a path that has yielded a fruitful career in musical performance, administration, and education. She wants to ensure that today’s conservatory students are equipped to do the same.
As Flint’s Oberlin history takes shape in her mind, Oberlin’s future is taking shape just outside the picture window. Her words are accompanied by the mechanical purr of an enormous crane that’s dangling an I-beam from its hook amid a muddy abyss at the corner of the North College and East Main. It’s the site of what by 2016 will be the Peter B. Lewis Gateway Center, a hub of activity that will house an expanded hotel and conference center, commercial and office space, a culinary training facility, and a restaurant. It will also feature an innovative performance space: an artistic and entrepreneurial incubator for students, and a key element of Oberlin’s campus-wide mission to mold graduates who are prepared to exceed the challenges of the 21st-century job market.
“Nobody teaches you how to run an organization,” Flint says, rattling off a list of skills – writing grants, forming a nonprofit, creating a board – that she learned through trial and error. “Students today are much better prepared than they used to be. But there’s still a learning curve.”
Flint herself is the living embodiment of the modern musician’s do-it-yourself ethos. Raised in an era when women were expected to be secretaries or nurses, she founded Brandywine Baroque in 1973. The early music ensemble still thrives today through annual concert series and festivals in and around Flint’s home state of Delaware. In 2003, she established the Dumont Concerts, a weekend festival that showcases the world’s top performers playing antique harpsichords. Flint’s record label, Plectra Music, creates eight recordings each year, with a focus on Baroque repertoire and vintage instruments. An avid performer, she also teaches harpsichord at the University of Delaware.
Amid all her success, Flint gives back to her alma mater at every turn, through her time and through generous contributions. In October 2014, she returned to campus to celebrate the dedication of a Gräbner-style harpsichord, like those Bach would have played. Built by renowned craftsman John Phillips, it was commissioned and gifted to Oberlin by Flint and her husband Peter, with whom she collects rare and vintage keyboards.
The Flints are also committed to fostering the entrepreneurship of future conservatory students. They have created a permanent fund to support grants through Oberlin’s Creativity & Leadership Project. Flint Initiative Grants will be awarded each year for projects to be undertaken during winter term. These grants, previously known as Conservatory Initiative Grants Supporting Imagination and Excellence, have allowed students to arrange tours in Norway, pore over early music manuscripts in England, and teach at a community music school in India in recent years.
“I’m happy to do anything that gives students a leg up in establishing themselves in some way,” Flint says. “The music industry has always been very competitive, but in this day and age, you have to create your own career path. Anything that helps you decide what happens after Oberlin is a good thing, and I’m hopeful that this initiative does that.”
Photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones