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Thomas Karolyi dies; violinist and Huntington schools music teacher was 82

An alumnus of the esteemed Huntington music program under Karolyi said, "I've never seen anything like it since."

Thomas Karolyi, of Huntington, was a strings teacher

Thomas Karolyi, of Huntington, was a strings teacher and violinist. Photo Credit: Adrienne Goldberg

Thomas Karolyi escaped the Holocaust and Communist Hungary and became a renowned Huntington schools music teacher and professional musician.

Karolyi died Sept. 8 in a Melville hospice from lung cancer, said his wife, Felicia Karolyi, of Huntington. He was 82.

Karolyi, a violinist and strings teacher in Huntington schools for 31 years, was a founding faculty member at J. Taylor Finley Junior High School in 1965. He later taught at Robert K. Toaz Junior High School and Huntington High School, introduced a music honors program to the district and prepped students for symphony auditions.

As an orchestra director he partnered with two other Huntington schools educators, choral director Andrew Housholder and band director Louis DiGennaro, to create one of the strongest music programs in New York State. Graduates include Dennis Parker, the former Detroit Symphony Orchestra cellist, and Peter Lurye, a composer whose credits include “The Magic School Bus.”

Tom Gellert, an alumnus who went on to direct music education in Harborfields schools, called the Huntington music program in the 1970s “the perfect alignment of the stars and planets as far as music education. I’ve never seen anything like it since.”

Karolyi spoke in an almost indecipherable Hungarian accent, Gellert recalled. He took an intense interest in his students but revealed almost nothing to them of his history or life outside of school.

In 1995, Karolyi spoke to Newsday about sponsoring a performance honoring the music of Holocaust victims at J. Taylor Finley. He said that it was not morose, but rather "composed to help sustain the human spirit, living under the most adverse conditions, and much of it is quite exuberant."

Thomas Karolyi was born in Budapest on Jan. 11, 1936, the only child of Gyula and Ilona Karolyi, a machinist and homemaker. They were Jews in an Axis nation that fell under German occupation in 1944.

In a span of months, more than 500,000 Jews — about 60 percent of Hungary’s Jewish population in 1941 — died of malnutrition or were murdered, according to the United States Holocaust Museum.

Karolyi’s father was sent to a labor camp in 1944 but trudged through swamps to escape. While German troops patrolled Budapest and allied bombers flew overhead, the family hid in a basement room of their apartment building for weeks at a time. “They were crammed in a room in total darkness,” Felicia Karolyi said. 

Karolyi spent his teen years in Communist Hungary but defected in 1956 after Soviet forces crushed a popular revolution there.

He reached New York City in 1957, living first in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, home of a family friend, and attended Queens College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music and a master's in music education.

In 1966 he married the former Felicia Weitzman, a fellow student.

Karolyi put himself through school playing gigs in what was then an energetic Hungarian restaurant and nightlife scene in New York City. When that scene petered out he played weddings, bar mitzvahs, dances and society events across Long Island, New York and New Jersey several nights a week after teaching.

For decades, he was part of a trio that played Sunday brunches at the private Metropolitan Club in Manhattan, drawing on a repertoire of hundreds of standards and folk songs he knew by heart.

Gellert was years out of high school when he first heard Karolyi playing professionally at the Essex House, a luxury hotel in Manhattan. “I was floored,” he said, realizing that his teacher had led a “secret life as a world-class sideman. … He was so modest, we never really suspected he had this incredible talent.”

It dawned on him too that his teacher must have been exhausted on those school day mornings long ago: “We’d see him in the morning knocking back coffee. It turned out he was out playing gigs.”

Thomas Karolyi played his last gig on New Year's Day at the Metropolitan Club, Felicia Karolyi said. By then, his grueling schedule had slowed. "He never touched a violin again," she said. "He didn’t go to the piano to sit down. It was like a door had closed."

Besides his wife, Karolyi is survived by their two daughters, Tara Monique Karolyi of Huntington and Adrienne Dawn Goldberg of White Plains; and Goldberg's children, Zachary, Shoshana and Gabriel.

Karolyi was buried Sept. 9 at Cedar Park Cemetery in Paramus, New Jersey. His family plans to celebrate his life with his fellow musicians and former students in a private event at Temple Beth El in Huntington in November.

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