In Memory, Jack Rokahr (1922-2021)

Jack Rokahr (1922-2021) installing his collection in the Music Library
Jack Rokahr (1922-2021) installing his collection in the Music Library

On March 5, 2021, Ernest “Jack” Rokahr (B.S., 1948) a charming man of fascinating stories, passionate collector of opera scores, World War II veteran, and proud Husker passed away at the age of 98. He left an incredible legacy, which included the Rokahr Family Archive, a collection of opera scores, published books about opera, posters, and recordings which he donated to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 2002.

“We are extremely sad to learn of the passing of Mr. Jack Rokahr,” said Dr. Sergio H. Ruiz, Professor and Director of the Glenn Korff School of Music. “We remain grateful for the generosity of Mr. Rokahr to donate his vast opera score collection to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Music Library. Mr. Rokahr once said, ‘A life without culture is no life.’ The Rokahr Family Archive remains a valuable resource for music education and research at Nebraska. Jack’s own love of opera showed in this amazing collection. He will be missed.”

Throughout his life Rokahr collected opera scores, from his first score, Bizet’s Carmen, bought from Walt’s Music Store when he was a teenager in Lincoln, Nebraska, to incredible discoveries and purchases in Europe during and after World War II.

“One of Jack’s best stories was about how he tracked down the music publisher Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig right after the war, only to find their building had been destroyed by bombs,” explained Anita Breckbill, music librarian “He was directed to a small storefront next door, asked for opera scores, and after a phone call by the proprietor, a representative from the publisher Peters rode up on a bike with opera scores for Jack.”

In another favorite post-war story, related in Rokahr’s private autobiography, he played piano in Nice for a party given by Edward, then the Duke of Windsor, and Wallis Simpson. He found a score for their favorite musical, Oklahoma, and accompanied them while they belted out the songs. Rokahr even described the clothes they were wearing, down to Edward’s very proper opera shoes with bows.

Breckbill fondly remembers Rokahr packing and transferring the collection materials with “military precision” for its transfer to the Music Library where it has made its home. Rokahr’s hope was that his collection would “ignite” student’s desire to learn more about opera and put Nebraska on the “operatic map.”

“Jack loved his collection, was so optimistic, full of stories, and he was interested in how the Archive would be used to support research,” explained Breckbill.

Since 2002, Rokahr continued to collect and grow the Archive, and he also started a fund at the University of Nebraska Foundation to help the Music Library purchase more scores, books, and recordings in the future. He wrote his own article about the Archive which was published in The Opera Quarterly in 2003.

Rokahr’s dream that the Archive would inspire research did come true. A doctoral student, Hannah Jo Smith, published her dissertation using the French operettas that were the “Diamonds in the Rokahr,” and the two articles that Breckbill published after taking Faculty Development Fellowships to work on the research. One project was inspired by the 23 scores in the Archive that were labeled as part of circulating libraries for music in France.

Some of the scores from the Archives have been digitized in the Libraries Images and Multimedia databases and some items have been included in the international database IMSLP – International Music Score Library Project.

“While it is sad to lose Jack, we are so grateful that he shared his passion with us and that his collection can continue supporting research and performance for our students and faculty and is being opened up, through digitization, for opera aficionados across the world,” said Breckbill. “He would love that!”