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Originally published Friday, September 28, 2012 at 9:08 PM

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Former longtime timpanist for Seattle Symphony dies

Meyer Slivka, timpanist for the Seattle Symphony in the 1960s and '70s, died Wednesday at age 89.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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For two decades, Meyer Slivka slipped past rows of musicians and took up a spot at the rear of the orchestra reserved for the timpanist.

But even tucked behind large kettle drums, Mr. Slivka was far from invisible.

"When he was working, oh, boy," said his widow, Enid Slivka, to whom he was married 53 years. "He wore tails with great flair, and a black homburg. He always wore patent-leather shoes with his tux, and rhinestone studs that sparkled. He looked sharp."

The dapper timpanist, who played with the Seattle Symphony through the 1960s and 1970s, died of pneumonia Wednesday at a nursing home in Seattle. He was 89.

Mr. Slivka was born in Indiana on April 8, 1923, the youngest of three boys born to Ukrainian immigrant parents who moved the family to San Francisco when Mr. Slivka was in grade school.

Even as a boy, his artistic sensibilities were evident.

In an unpublished memoir, Mr. Slivka described solitary hikes through San Francisco neighborhoods, or down steep trails so he could sit in a cavern in the rocks to listen to the ocean's roar: "Fog was my friend. It hid a world from me that I didn't always want to see. Or it blurred the sharp edges of reality, creating mystery. ... I could dream as I walked into the mist: dream I was entering my own strange world, a place where I could make up rules to my liking."

Mr. Slivka was 13 when his mother died of pneumonia after surgery. As a teenager, he spent a lot of time with his brother, David, a sculptor eight years his senior. Through David and teachers, whose names Mr. Slivka remembered well into his 70s, Mr. Slivka was exposed to dance, music, drawing and painting.

Mr. Slivka worked odd jobs before enlisting in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1942. He was sent to Plymouth, England, and later joked that his most dangerous assignment was taking weather measurements in a plane flown by a hung-over pilot.

After the war, he returned to California, where he met his first wife, Ethel Phillips, with whom he had a son, Michael. The couple divorced when Mr. Slivka was in college under the GI bill, studying music and art at what was then called San Francisco State College.

Mr. Slivka played music on both coasts in the 1950s, joining symphonies and jazz bands in New York City and San Francisco. He joined the Seattle Symphony as its principal timpanist in 1958, when Milton Katims was conductor.

A year later, he married Enid Miller, a librarian with whom he had four children. The family lived in Seattle's Mount Baker neighborhood for nearly 40 years.

Mr. Slivka continually sought to improve the sound of his drums, using calfskin heads that he stretched himself in the family kitchen, and he took up woodworking, in part, so he could make his own drumsticks, Enid Slivka said.

He also made wood heads for his golf clubs, and built mahogany cabinets and speakers for the hi-fi set he assembled. He constructed guitars, an electronic synthesizer, an oscilloscope and a color TV. He even built a theremin, an early electronic instrument.

Mr. Slivka left the symphony in 1980, a year after a difficult negotiation between the symphony management and the musicians union — which he was representing — resulted in a strike.

He didn't perform on drums after that but continued to paint and to travel. He took long walks daily through Mount Baker and Colman parks, and talked hats with the driver of the No. 14 Metro bus.

Mr. Slivka's music tastes ran the gamut. Though he played classical music and jazz, one of his favorite albums was The Beatle's White Album, according to his son, Benjamin Slivka.

In addition to his wife, Enid, of Seattle, and sons, Michael, of Tacoma, and Benjamin, of Clyde Hill, Mr. Slivka is survived by son Alexander, of Anchorage, daughters Rebecca, of Seattle, and Hebe, of Bluffton, S.C., and eight grandchildren.

A private memorial service will be held Oct. 13. Contributions for the construction of a park bench in Mr. Slivka's memory may be made at slivka.com/bench.

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @susankelleher.

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