Joanna Griscom, volunteer, classical music producer

Mrs. Griscom and her husband were longtime members of the Cantata Singers, performing with the group for 20 years. Mrs. Griscom and her husband were longtime members of the Cantata Singers, performing with the group for 20 years.
By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / May 11, 2010

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When they built their dream house in Lexington in 1998, Joanna Griscom did much of the designing. She and her husband had raised their children in their previous home near Lexington High School, and now they were on their own.

“Jo had always been very handy at painting and wallpapering and loved solving problems,’’ said her husband, Dr. N. Thorne Griscom, a radiologist at Children’s Hospital in Boston. The handsome new house on Meriam Street would be the last family gathering place.

Twelve years later, when the Griscoms thought of moving to a retirement community, they chose Brookhaven at Lexington, but, there was no rush to move, said their son, Daniel of Melrose. “It was Mom who pushed for it.’’

Thorne Griscom knew why. “Jo wanted to move to Brookhaven to get me settled,’’ he said. “It was her last and greatest gift to me.’’

The Griscoms moved into Brookhaven on April 14. Mrs. Griscom, diagnosed in December, died of malignant melanoma at her home there on April 25. She was 78.

“Jo was an intelligent, strong-willed, capable woman who loved her family and music,’’ her husband said.

Her son Matthew of Shoreline, Wash., described her as “courageous and generous.’’

“Mother was very much about helping her children and her husband while she was dying,’’ he said. “She did not want to be a burden, and she did not want people to cry over her. Her sense of humor was poignant, but it remained.’’

She was once a volunteer hospice caregiver who was later in hospice care. Mary Petschek, of Lexington, her friend and former hospice worker, recalled the care Mrs. Griscom had given others and the empathy and kindness she had shown.

Mrs. Griscom was a giver, not a taker, friends said, and had spent many years volunteering in Lexington, as a hospice worker, at Carey Memorial Library and its foundation, and singing with her husband in various choral groups. As a paid job in the 1980s, she was producer of a classical music program at WGBH Radio.

The Griscoms were longtime members of the Cantata Singers, performing with the group for 20 years before retiring from singing in the 1990s.

“Jo had a sweet soprano and was always right on the note,’’ her husband said.

She was president of the Cantata Singers from 1973 to 1981 and was liaison between the chorus and music directors.

She loved all music, particularly classical, her husband said, but, also, Scott Joplin’s ragtime.

It was music that brought the couple together when Thorne Griscom was a medical student at the University of Rochester and Joanna Starr was working in one of its offices. They were both members of the Rochester Oratorium Society and after meeting him at a society gathering, “Jo looked up my credentials [at the university], and apparently I passed her criteria,’’ he said.

They married in 1955 and came to Boston the next year when Thorne Griscom was at Massachusetts General Hospital. They moved to Oklahoma for two years while he served in the US Army at Fort Sill before returning to Boston. In 1963, Thorne Griscom joined Children’s, and the family settled in Lexington.

Joanna (Starr) Griscom was born in Middletown, Conn., and raised in East Hampton, Conn. Her brother, John Starr of Charlestown, R.I., said that as children he and his sister escaped the devastating Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus tent fire in Hartford, Conn. in 1944. “A woman grabbed Joanna, but she pulled herself loose and escaped through a slit in the tent,’’ he said. There was a photo of her outside the tent gasping for air, he said.

She majored in voice and graduated from Connecticut College for Women in 1953. She continued her secretarial work for a time after her marriage, but stopped after the birth of their first child.

“Jo had a lot of stress in her life,’’ her husband said, recalling the death of a daughter from cancer and the injury of a son in a car accident.

Yet, her family said, she persisted. Along with lessons for living, she taught her children to be practical.

Her daughter Nell of Los Gatos, Calif., said she tried to teach her how not to be afraid of spiders. “We were picnicking,’’ she said, “and I shrieked because a spider crawled onto the blanket. So Mom ate it to prove it was harmless. It didn’t help.’’

As her children got older, Mrs. Griscom went back to work, this time as producer of WGBH’s classical music program, “Chamberworks,’’ in the 1980s.

“Mother was a perfectionist and expected it from others,’’ Nell said.

“She produced over 100 in-studio and on-location music recordings,’’ Nell said, and won a number of awards. In 1986, she received the Broadcast Media Award from the Broadcast Industry Conference in San Francisco for a Trevor Pinnock concert. She was a finalist in the International Radio Festival of New York for “Bach Around the Clock.’’

“Jo was a wonderful person and very knowledgeable,’’ said John Voci, general manager at WGBH Radio, recalling that she produced and smoothly ran an hourlong classical radio program Mondays through Fridays during the 1980s.

At Lexington’s Carey Memorial Library, Cornelia Rawson, its director, spoke of how much Mrs. Griscom’s work meant as a board member of the library’s foundation.

“As board secretary, Jo was an unsung hero,’’ she said. “She was active until her tragedy. She would be the first person to tell you to keep smiling and moving forward. Jo just enriched the world around her.’’

In addition to her husband, her two sons, her daughter, and her brother, Mrs. Griscom leaves seven grandchildren.

A memorial gathering in her honor will be held at 6 p.m. June 12 at Carey Memorial Library in Lexington.