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Local arts community will miss champion Milt Younger

Milt and Betty Younger

In this 2013 file photo, Milt and Betty Younger stand in front of "Moon Window," one of Betty's pieces located at the Sculpture Garden at the Bank of America building downtown.

Milt Younger, who died Sept. 1, left an indelible mark on the local arts community. Through his life, the veteran civil attorney was occupied with many things — his family, his legal practice, politics, education and much more. Nevertheless, Younger, along with his wife, Betty, spent a lot of time, energy and money promoting local artists, and he became a champion of the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra.

Lifelong friend Mike Barker personally benefited from the Youngers’ interest in local artists. Curator for the Younger Gallery until last year (Vicky Smart is the current curator), Barker first became associated with Milt and Betty Younger in 1967, when, as a 14-year-old artist in training, he sold them his first painting.

“They paid me $35,” Barker said. “That was more than my father made in a week.”

Barker said the Youngers also bought many works by other local artists, such as Bill Ryan and Ted Kerzie, while promoting exhibitions at the gallery and in other venues.

“I think one of the precepts for having the Younger Gallery is to promote local artists,” Barker said.

“They both have just been instrumental in the arts,” Barker said. “They support all the galleries in the sense of being there.”

Barker noted that Betty, a noted sculptor and artist in her own right, led the couple’s interest in the visual arts. But anyone from the Bakersfield Symphony could tell you who led the interest in music.

“It seems like he was always around,” Mary Moore said.

That’s saying a lot: Moore, who serves as the BSO’s operations manager and principal clarinetist, has been with the orchestra since 1959. Younger precedes her by about 15 years, when he played in the violin section of what was then a community orchestra, while still in high school just after World War II.

“It was just a fledgling orchestra,” Moore said. “They were just starting up again after the war.”

From musician to supporter, to board member and eventually board president, Younger was part of every success, failure, triumph and crisis the orchestra faced over the next 70 years, and helped it keep the BSO financially solvent, not just by being very assertive in getting people to donate, but by setting an example.

“He gave more than people knew,” Moore said. “He had a thing he called ‘Match Milt’ — no matter what anybody donated, he would match it.”

Perhaps Younger’s biggest contribution to the orchestra was intervening during a crisis point in the late 1990s. Internal discord at the administrative level had become so severe that the orchestra musicians were prepared to walk out.

“Milt was the one who stepped in and arbitrated the situation,” Moore said. “He helped the orchestra move forward.”

Younger was made an honorary member of the board with a lifetime membership in 2005. While some might see that as just a title, Younger took that membership seriously.

“He came to all the board meetings except the last one,” Moore said. “That would have been in August.”

Moore said the orchestra is planning a public tribute to their great friend and benefactor for some time in the 2017-18 concert season, which begins in October. For the first time in seven decades, Younger won’t be present — physically, at any rate.

“He attended every concert,” Moore said. “He even attended the last concert in May — he was in a wheelchair.”

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