A Gardiner resident since 2004, known to many local parents as the former proprietor of the New Paltz franchise of Musical Munchkins, Elizabeth Olarsch Hunter passed from this world on December 5 at the age of 54. The immediate cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage, but “Lizz” Hunter had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia six months previously and was awaiting a bone marrow transplant at the time of her death.
Hunter’s passing has sent powerful ripples through the New Paltz/Gardiner community, where many knew her as an accomplished singer/songwriter and the mother of what her husband Tim Hunter calls their “United Nations family.” Their two elder children, 11-year-old Wynnefred and nine-year-old Theodore, were born in Guatemala, and the younger two, eight-year-old Moses and seven-year-old Beatrice, in Rwanda. With both parents coming from Jewish families, Tim jokes that they might qualify as “the only three-genocide family on the planet. Our mission is to create love, and in our own way say, ‘Never again.’” Elizabeth was a passionate advocate for adoption and frequently consulted with other local families seeking to adopt needy children in Third World countries, “coaching women on how to find their perfect meant-to-be children,” according to Tim. “She called our children to us.”
In his raw and moving eulogy at his wife’s memorial service, the widower characterized Lizz as “blindingly creative, hopelessly big-hearted.” Growing up in the Westchester town of Crestwood, young Elizabeth Olarsch was a gifted student from the get-go, as well as “a very fine concert pianist,” attending both Horace Mann High School and the Manhattan School of Music. “She was accepted to Albany Medical School, but declined,” Tim recounts. “Her parents never got over it.” Instead, the young polymath opted to attend Brown University, where she sang with the legendary campus women’s a cappella group the Chattertocks and majored in Renaissance Studies. “She was a Renaissance woman. She had no interest in the mundane things of the world.”
The couple met in Brooklyn in 1990, when Tim — a co-founder of the Walkabout Clearwater Chorus, who often shared the stage with Pete Seeger — was trying to make a living as a musician. He placed an ad in the Village Voice seeking a female lead singer for a new folk group called Just ‘Cause, and Elizabeth responded and was hired. “We didn’t like each other at first,” Tim claims, recalling a concert that they did together at the New York City acoustic music venue Wetlands, where Elizabeth “refused to sing my corny song, because it was beneath her standards.”
But something clicked. “We had so much in common: our idealism, our worldview, the way we care about people.” Both worked in programs teaching music to inner-city kids. They began dating, and within three months Tim had proposed marriage, very romantically: in a white horsedrawn carriage in Central Park, with a bottle of Dom Perignon, followed by dinner at Tavern-on-the-Green. Elizabeth accepted, and in 1991 they married and moved to South Berwick, Maine, “to create our own lives.” They established a “family band” called Free at Last even before adopting children, touring the college circuit in New England and recording an album in 1996 titled One Woman’s Song.
Eventually the couple moved to Pawling — closer to kinfolk in the Hudson Valley — and Elizabeth was trained in Musical Munchkins’ developmentally staged techniques for teaching music to children from the company’s founder, Eileen Oddo. Lizz became a Musical Munchkins teacher in Westchester before the family relocated to Gardiner in 2004, attracted by the “awe-inspiring, breathtaking beauty” of the Shawangunk Ridge, and opened a Musical Munchkins branch in New Paltz. Tim, meanwhile, had acquired salesmanship skills and went to work as a channel manager for “a New York-based telephone company.”
Building a family took up much of the Hunters’ next several years, adopting the four children between 2005 and 2009. “We always did music with the kids,” says Tim, calling themselves the Hunter World Family Band. Then, three years ago, Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer. Tim helped her cope with the side effects of chemotherapy by being the first to get his head shaved, he says. “She made it through…her lymph nodes were clean.” But one of the drugs with which she was treated, adriamycin, triggers acute myeloid leukemia in a very small percentage of patients, according to Tim. Elizabeth was rediagnosed with the deadly bone marrow cancer in June of 2017.
Tim spent most of the six months that followed at his wife’s bedside at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, accompanying her on long walks while she fought the leukemia. Attempts to put the disease into remission long enough for a bone marrow transplant were not successful, but, says Tim, “We never spoke of death. You don’t want to energize an outcome that you don’t want to happen. We were remaining totally positive…. We only really knew on the fourth.”
Now Tim Hunter’s focus is on having more time to spend with his and Elizabeth’s children, who have returned to their classes at the Mountain Laurel Waldorf School. “We wanted to create a world where we can take care of every soul. Now it’s my sacred responsibility to look out for them.” Meanwhile, the family is singing and playing together once again, and a “Tributon” concert with many guest musicians performing Elizabeth’s original will be held on January 7 at the Gardiner Library as part of the Gardiner Community Concert Series. The performances will be recorded for a memorial album.
“Lizz was one of those people you meet who you never forget,” Tim Hunter adds. “She was vivacious, loquacious; she really locked into people, as if she could read right into your soul.”