A family’s longtime commitment to inclusion inspires a fund to build community through music

The Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum hosted Joyful Noise at Sanders Theatre for “Boundless Realms of Joy”— a weekend-long residency in 2014 that included a performance and a symposium featuring musicians, researchers, and disability advocates.

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In December 1933, Rosa “Kaethe” Goldberg Fromm entered Gestapo headquarters determined to persuade authorities to free her husband, Walther, who had been arrested for signing a petition. Three years later, Kaethe, Walther, and their 3-year-old son, Guenther, dodged bullets at a border crossing as they fled Nazi Germany, eventually landing in New York City to restart their lives as Kate, Walter, and Gary. 

Kate put their small savings toward rescuing extended family still in Germany, sponsoring nearly a dozen relatives to come to the United States. Kate’s commitment to justice endured as she and Walter helped refugees and asylum seekers from all countries navigate new lives in America just as they had done. Kate would go on to be president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization that advocates for and provides vital services to refugees across the globe.

“Immigrant experience is anxiety after anxiety, and I think that makes you either totally intolerant of anyone else or very sympathetic to others,” explains Susan Fromm Shimelman, GSAS ’64, Walter and Kate’s daughter, who was born in the U.S. “Their interest was always in helping both their direct community and the wider community adjust to the vicissitudes of life in America.”  

The first in his family to go to college, Gary completed degrees in industrial management and mechanical engineering before earning his Ph.D. in economics at Harvard in 1961. After his parents died, Gary honored their lifelong dedication to helping others by making a gift to establish the Walter and Kate Fromm Endowment Fund at Harvard.

The fund supports the Harvard Choruses’ programs focused on historically underrepresented groups, including Cambridge Common Voices, an inclusive community chorus created by Harvard College and Lesley University’s Threshold Program for young adults with diverse learning challenges. The fund’s impact has been shaped not only by Gary’s parents but by his children, Allison and Elizabeth, and his granddaughter, Katie. And with additional support through a recent gift from Gary’s friend Maurine Haver, the Fromm family endowment will continue to foster music and community at Harvard and beyond for years to come.   

Fine-tuning a vision

Gary knew he wanted to support choral projects that would provide access and rich experiences to those who typically have limited opportunities for choral singing. Since 2000, he had been moved by Joyful Noise — a chorus of adults with physical and neurological challenges, including those living with brain injuries — founded by his daughters, Allison and Elizabeth, with help from their mother, Sandra Berkman Fromm, M.A.T. ’55. Based in southern New Jersey and Delaware, the chorus connects people who share a passion for singing, creating an atmosphere where members can discover their voices and express themselves through music. Allison directs the ensemble, and Elizabeth is a member. 

“My father knew Harvard had a strong choral program, and he thought about the work we were doing with Joyful Noise,” explains Allison. “He saw the endowment as a possibility to create access to music for people in multiple underrepresented communities.”