Music to the BSO's ears: a gift from Ray Getzov

October 25, 2003|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Ray Getzov is no Warren Buffett.

Getzov, a man of moderate wealth, is the retired president of Gebco, a small Maryland-based insurance agency; Buffett, the second-richest man in America, owns, among many other things, GEICO, the nation's sixth-largest auto insurer.

Rumors about Buffett's health can make the stock market rise and fall; Getzov's medical condition, as he sees it, is neither big news nor a secret - he has multiple myeloma, an incurable form of cancer.

And while Buffett, 73, is notoriously nonphilanthropic, Getzov, at 70, has been known to share his far tinier fortune. The latest example of his generosity came Thursday, with the announcement that he has donated $1 million to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Getzov, whose battle with cancer has lasted almost 11 years - twice as long as local doctors gave him to live when they diagnosed it - says his donation is rooted in his lifelong love for classical music and a desire to improve its prognosis.

"I'm concerned about how very difficult it is for classical music now, with a dwindling audience and all," he said Thursday. "I want to have it available for my grandchildren and great grandchildren."

Getzov's passion for classical music started when he began taking piano lessons as an 8-year-old in Camden, N.J. When he was 13, he went for the first time with his father to Philadelphia's Academy of Music, to see Vladimir Horowitz.

Getzov was no Horowitz. He could play well, and by ear, but he never considered becoming a professional musician - too much practice involved, he said. Still, as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he would entertain fraternity brothers on the piano, often with the William Tell Overture, his favorite.

After graduating, he met his wife, Connie, on a blind date. On the next date, he played the piano for her - Chopin, she said. "I was very impressed." They were married in 1956.

In 1959, they moved to Baltimore, where Getzov worked as an insurance agent. When they checked out the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, they were less than dazzled. That changed in 1968, when Sergiu Comissiona became music director. The Getzovs attended regularly, and served as co-chairs of the Symphony Society, a group that works to raise funds for the orchestra. Later, Ray Getzov was named to the BSO board of directors, a position he has held for 15 years.

Getzov founded Gebco Insurance Associates in 1971. By the time he retired, in 2001, the company - perhaps best known for its television ads featuring the "Gebco Dancers" and the catch phrase "Go Gebco" - had grown from two employees in one office to more than 50 employees in 14 locations.

What do scantily clad dancers have to do with car insurance? Nothing, Getzov admitted, but then neither does a lizard with a British accent (GEICO's mascot). The dancers, Getzov said, were the idea of his daughter, Lisa Getzov Radov, Gebco's director of marketing. Before that, Gebco advertisements featured the William Tell Overture.

While a fan of different types of music, Getzov programs his radio every night to play classical music for an hour while he falls asleep.

"It really gives him a lot of comfort and peace," she said. "He just really delights in it."

"I'll put it this way," said Connie, a teacher before joining her husband at Gebco. "I always said his life was his family, Gebco and music. Family always came first, but sometimes the music came next."

Ray and Connie Getzov were on vacation in Italy when he first realized something might be wrong.

Climbing Mount Vesuvius, Getzov noticed he was lagging behind his wife. "I couldn't keep up with her," he said.

He visited his doctor and, after a series of tests, learned in March 1993 he had multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer that develops in the blood.

About 45,000 people in the United States have the disease, which the American Cancer Society estimates afflicts 14,600 people a year.

A cancer of the plasma cell, it has no known cause, or cure. There are a range of treatments, many of them still experimental, and Getzov has been through most of them.

When local doctors told him he would probably live only three to five years, Getzov - on the advice of a relative - contacted the Arkansas Cancer Research Center, at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.

He has been going there nearly every month for 10 years, receiving, among other therapies, three stem cell transplants, chemotherapy and thalidomide.

"Normally, people don't live more than a few years, and I've been around for 10 1/2 ," said Getzov, who lives in Timonium. In Little Rock, he often attends the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, making the visits for treatment more tolerable.

"He's amazing," his daughter said. "With stem cell transplants and thalidomide, you never feel fabulous, but they continue to travel all over the place, and you never see him complaining."

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