By Paul Hyde: March 3, 2016
Hundreds of friends, family and admirers celebrated the life of Sherwood Mobley with tears, laughter and an abundance of music on Thursday afternoon at First Baptist Church, Greenville.
Mobley, 59, the executive director and former longtime timpanist with the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, passed away last Friday after a short illness.
“Sherwood’s death is a devastating loss to his family and our community,” said the Rev. Baxter Wynn. “He touched so many people and had so much more to give. We grieve but also give thanks for his life.
“What a beautiful human being.”
Mobley was remembered as a man “who had three great loves: family, faith and the Greenville Symphony,” Wynn said.
About 50 Greenville Symphony musicians were on hand to provide music, under the direction of conductor Edvard Tchivzhel.
Mobley was a well-known figure to concert-goers, a jovial presence greeting patrons in the lobby of the Peace Center. He also occupied a familiar spot behind the timpani for 23 years before becoming the orchestra’s executive director in 2014.
Mobley lived in Simpsonville with his wife, Debbie Paden Mobley, and their two daughters, Naomi Paden Mobley and Sarah Paden Mobley.
Wynn spoke about Mobley as a consummate professional musician but also talked about his generosity and devotion as a father.
Mobley was always willing to offer a helping hand, Wynn said. One of Mobley’s last wishes was to donate his marimba to a local ninth-grade percussion student.
Mobley was also an enthusiastic supporter of his two daughters’ basketball games.
“He was the most exuberant, loudest, uninhibited cheerleader of them all,” Wynn said, drawing laughter and nods from the crowd. “When one of his girls took a shot, he would leap to his feet, throw both arms into the air and shout ‘Yes!’ — even if the shot was nowhere close to the hoop. He never stopped cheering for his girls. He adored his family.”
Wynn recounted how Mobley met his wife, Debbie, when the two were students at the Boston Conservatory. The first time he ever saw her, Mobley flashed his familiar bright smile and said in his Barry White-like baritone, “Well, hello there.”
Wynn spoke of how Mobley silently but firmly fought against discrimination. When Mobley was earning his master’s degree, a percussion teacher discouraged his ambitions of becoming a timpani player, noting that there were not many black people in American orchestras.
Mobley went home that day and said to his wife, “Debbie, I’m going to find a new percussion teacher.”
“Part of Sherwood’s story is his fierce tenacity in overcoming obstacles that most of us here have never encountered,” Wynn said. “He faced blatant and insidious racism, but persevered through remarkable strength, faith and grace.”
Mobley’s appointment in 2014 as executive director of the orchestra gained considerable notice nationwide because he was one of the few black executives serving in the top administrative position in an American symphony orchestra.
Mobley was born on May 3, 1956 in Sanford, Florida. Mobley’s mother introduced him to piano at age 4.
“In that household, everybody had to take piano lessons,” Mobley said in 2015. “That was the rule.”
One day, however, the young Mobley saw the Florida A&M band’s legendary drumline — and the young man discovered his true calling.
“I was just fascinated by the drums,” Mobley said last year. “They were flipping the sticks all around and it looked so cool. That was the wow-factor for me, seeing the Florida A&M marching band drumline.”
Mobley would later earn his bachelor’s degree in music at the Boston Conservatory. He earned a master’s at the New England Conservatory, also in Boston.
Several professional jobs would follow. Mobley served as principal timpanist with the Maracaibo (Venezuela) and Macon (Georgia) symphony orchestras before becoming principal timpanist with the Greenville Symphony in 1991.
In 1996, Mobley was appointed to be the orchestra’s director of operations and personnel while still serving as timpanist.
Wynn recounted the words of one Greenville Symphony staff member who worked closely with Mobley: “Sherwood was a natural-born timpanist. Anything in arm’s reach was fair game, which he’d play like a set of drums. From a desk to a table to a wall or a filing cabinet, Sherwood would play them like a drum whenever he walked through the office.”
Mobley was appointed executive director of the orchestra in December, 2014.
He also was a deacon and Sunday school teacher at First Baptist Church.
“Faith was at the core of who he was,” Wynn said.
At Thursday’s celebration, Tchivzhel led the orchestra in elegiac performances of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” and other works. Several musicians also performed duets and trios between readings and prayers.
The orchestra later joined with the First Baptist Choir to lead the assembled crowd in Beethoven’s triumphant “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”
“The impact of his life will live on,” Wynn said of Mobley. “His acts of kindness, his extraordinary influence on people and institutions will live on, the gifts and talent he shared with this community will live on. The love he gave his family will live on. What a remarkable, inspiring life. We were blessed to know him. We’ll miss him mightily and we’ll forever be grateful for the time we had.”