The Spirit of Volunteerism (3rd of 3): David Moebs


Having spent time recently writing about Sarah Houghton-Jan and Lori Reed, two trainer-teacher-learners who embody the true spirit of volunteerism in all they do, I’m turning toward another friend whose volunteer efforts in the world of nonprofit organizations provide a timeless example of how those facing tremendous challenges sometimes keep the rest of us inspired.

David Moebs has touched and changed a lot of lives through his commitment to the arts. A professional clarinetist and teacher working with children through the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Preparatory Department, he attracted significant numbers of undergraduate- and graduate-level students to the school while also employed in its admissions office, and his efforts on behalf of his fellow musicians in the Sacramento Symphony until the organization folded in 1996 gave him a level of credibility others might not have achieved.

Like Sarah and Lori, he accomplished much of this after learning that he was facing severe physical challenges: he was diagnosed as being HIV-positive in 1985.  During the initial years after he received that diagnosis, this wonderful educator volunteered for clinical tests designed to find ways to lessen or eradicate the effects of AIDS. He maintained his position as a Conservatory employee, a Prep Department instructor, and member of the Sacramento Symphony. And he continued, with whatever free time he had, to work on behalf of those he cared about by volunteering to serve on the Symphony musician union’s negotiating team during extremely stressful discussions even though he understood that the effects of that stress might have devastating effects on his health.

Remembering some of the difficulties he had as a young gay man in a less than accepting environment, he looked for ways to help others in a similar situation better cope with the challenges they faced. Wanting to use his knowledge of and passion for the arts in those endeavors, he enrolled in a creative writing course and considered adding coursework to his already busy schedule so he could earn a counseling degree which would qualify him to work with gay teens who needed all the support they could find.

When David’s health took a drastic and potentially fatal turn for the worse with a diagnosis of Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy—PML—most of us assumed he was finally out of time. As PML rapidly progressed over a two-month period by consuming significant levels of the myelin sheath around his nerves, his ability to play clarinet rapidly disappeared. Along with his ability to move and talk and maintain his independence. But his sense of humor during that awful period of time never failed; as a few of us were watching television together one evening and sat through a commercial citing the symptoms of diabetes—all of which matched parts of what he was experiencing—he looked at us, smiled, and struggled to say, “Oh, thank God; I thought I had PML.”

The rapid decline appeared to reverse itself on Thanksgiving morning that year; without warning or explanation, he was able to get out of his bed, walk around a little, and eventually join us for a Thanksgiving meal. Over the next few months, he began feeling well enough to attempt to play the clarinet again. He took steps to register for those counseling courses he had been hoping to complete. And he even began driving short distances again.

But at the end of what appeared to be an entire year of recovery, the effects of PML became apparent once again, and within a few months he was no longer able to remain at home even with the around-the-clock care friends and professional nursing staff were struggling to provide. So in May 1998, he moved into Coming Home Hospice, in San Francisco’s Castro District. As he drifted in and out of consciousness, his friends would sometimes see him reach into the air and flutter his fingers.

“Was he a musician?” one of the hospice attendants asked. “It looks like he’s trying to play an instrument.”

We gladly volunteered to hold his hands and rub his back long after he stopped giving any sign that he knew we were there. His eyes stared blankly up toward one of the corners of the ceiling.

“We call it ‘watching the angels,” a hospice worker told us. “It’s very common when the end is near.”

I read him passages from his favorite books even though there were no visible responses, and I didn’t care whether he was trying to communicate with me or was simply displaying reflex actions when I felt his hand squeeze mine a couple of times.

And when he passed away, exactly eleven years ago, I knew I’d lost an irreplaceable friend. Who continues to inspire me to watch for the angels in my life. And to volunteer in every way I can to carry on the spirit they embody.

–In memory of David, January 27, 1959 – June 6, 1998

6 Responses to The Spirit of Volunteerism (3rd of 3): David Moebs

  1. John Edwards-Younger says:

    David and I became very good friends during the ’80’s after we had both met in a “Music for Film” class during a summer semester at SFSU (somewhere around ’82 or ’83). My background was film and his was music, and we instantly hit it off. We were always interested in collaboration, and almost succeeded, but it ultimately collapsed due to time and other interests on both our parts. However, the friendship was always there and we would often meet for a bite or a drink.

    The last time I saw him was shortly before moving to Los Angeles in 1989. Somewhere I have a picture of him holding my then infant daughter. In my mind’s eye I can still see him adoring her while his massive arms cradled her tinyness. We lost touch after my move, and I’ve always searched for him whenever I would visit S.F. I was never able to find him again because neither of us had any mutual friends I could ask – that’s how unique our friendship was; it existed out side both our “inner circles.”

    I always like to presume that he finally got the big orchestra gig that he so badly desired and worked so hard for. I remember Berlin being a big one on his list. Oh the hours and the stories he had about always making the final group cut, but losing out on the ultimate single selection (usually due to internal political “fixes” already having been in place in advance of the tryouts). This eternal kabuki frustrated him, and he would often be quite demoralized. I always encouraged him to keep trying (having studied music as well, I knew when talent was present…). His sense of humor was strength for these times.

    I can’t tell you how crushed and sad I am to learn that not only has he passed, but it’s now been over 12 years. At the same time, I am relieved to know what has happened to him, and I no longer must suffer frustration at the not knowing. I always knew that he had many friends, and I am glad to know he was among them during his last days. And although I never got to say goodbye to him personally, I am pleased to know that his suffering and passing was in the presence of loving care.

    Thank you so very much for being his friend. I shall always treasure my memories of him and the many years of a singularly special friendship that we shared. I can rest easier knowing he remained well loved.


    • Very touched by your addition to his story; yes, he was a tremendous friend and inspiration, and it’s wonderful to know that he is somehow still succeeding in bringing people together.

  2. I met David Moebs when I was a graduate student at the S.F. Conservatory. I wanted to play the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time for my grad recital (I am a pianist) and he was recommended to play the clarinet part. He was such a fine musician – he ended up coaching the group and due to his musicianship & ability to communicate we had a very special performance. I always think of him when I hear the piece and when I have played it with others since. I feel so fortunate to have had this deep musical experience with him in 1988.

  3. Realizing that the posts here don’t reflect all the notes I’ve received about David since writing the original blog posting more than three years ago, I’m adding a couple of others that I received via email:

    1) “I played in a little amusement park band with Dave for a couple of summers–we had a blast, and he was a wonderful player. We also went to school together, but lost touch after I graduated. I always sensed he was gay, but not comfortable with it at that time. I’d heard through the grapevine that he wound up in SF, but that’s the last I heard. I’ve wondered about him a lot over the years. He was funny, talented, smart and quirky–always fun to be around, and I was sad to lose touch with him.

    “I’m glad to hear he had good friends around him in SF, and grateful you were there for him when he needed you.”

    2) “David was always a very special person, such a talented musician. I was hoping I would find him performing in a symphony
    somewhere. I am sure he is.”

    Also discovered–because of comments made by those of you responding to the original post a couple of years ago–that there is an archived recording of a performance that included David. A librarian at the University of Buffalo was kind enough to provide temporary online access to the recording as long as I promised to not make a permanent copy. If you want to pursue this, here’s the contact info:

    Nancy B. Nuzzo
    Director, Music & Special Collections
    University at Buffalo
    112 Baird Hall (716) 645-2935
    Buffalo, NY 14260-4750 (716) 645-3906 (fax)

    And here’s the recording information you’ll need so she (or one of her colleagues) can locate the recording again:

    DCL 459

    Composer: Satie, Erik, 1866-1925.
    Title: Sports et Divertissements; arr. (1914)
    Performers: David Moebs, clarinet; Darlene Reynard, bassoon; Thomas Halpin, violin; Farley Pearce, violoncello
    NB: Mikhashoff transcription dedicated to John Cage.
    Duration: 15:40

  4. Tod Brody says:

    Hi, Paul
    I thought of David, as I always do, when everyone was talking about Mozart’s birthday a couple of weeks ago. And tonight I just got the urge to check out whatever might be written about him online. How nice to find your remembrance. David was a very important person in my life, and the things I learned from being with him are part of every day. I hope life is bringing you good things.
    Tod Brody

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