Maria (Tschirgi) Kozak, 74, passed away peacefully with her daughters at her side on Sunday, September 3, 2017.
Born and raised in Chicago, Il., at 19 she arrived in California, making it her home for the next 53 years. In 1965, she began working for Musicians Union Local 6 in various capacities, becoming the “Special Assistant” to the President of Local 6, until retiring after 43 years of service.
Maria was an amazing professional piano player, playing many venues in San Francisco and the Peninsula. She also played for residents at Laguna Honda in San Francisco as well as other healthcare facilities. Her kindness and generosity showed in ways she seldom spoke of, donating to many charitable organizations, helping others in serious need. She received a certificate of Appreciation from the South San Francisco Police Department for rescuing a citizen with dementia. She had a great love of animals too.
Maria is predeceased by her husband, Ray Tschirgi (1934-2002), her mother Susanne Kozak, her sister Marcy Corona and her niece Sheila Corona. She is survived by her daughters Michelle Friesz of Paradise, CA, Laura Squellati and Vicki Tschirgi of Novato, CA. She is also survived by her cherished nephews and nieces, Shannon, Sean, Sherry and Shane, all of Chicago, IL.
We all loved Maria a lot. I remember her talking about how long she’d been at the union and how many things she’d seen, and about how she would like to “tell all” in her memoirs someday. I have concluded that a lot of people are relieved that she never got around to writing those memoirs.
To many people, Maria was the face of the union. If you walked in the door or called on the phone she always had a cheerful greeting and would try to help you with whatever had brought you in, whether finding a chart for some song, contact info for a member, suggesting a café that might need some music, or just an encouraging word, and in a few cases, a few bucks to help someone through a rough spot. Her respect and positivity were especially important to us “casual” musicians. She always made us feel that the union was with us even if we weren’t big time. We’ll all miss her big heart.
I first met Maria behind the desk at the Local 6 Union Hall in the Tenderloin around 1981 when I first moved to town. She greeted me with, “Hi babe, what can I do for you?” I liked her instantly, and the more I got to know her, the more I realized that behind that late 50’s, early 60’s style, hip-chick front, with piled up hair was someone who knew how everything worked at Local 6 behind the scenes!
Over the years she and I bonded over several kinds of gigs, green sheet gigs and service style gigs. Maria got me involved at Laguna Honda Hospital, and once I started performing there I was able to hear Maria play with her swinging band, and my respect for her grew even more. She came to play, she had the right feel, her band loved her, and the patients loved her performance. She was in her happiest moments behind the piano. I am very thankful to Maria for always taking a chance on me, and I welcomed her phone calls for a chance at giving back. She worked very hard at maintaining the musical program at Laguna Honda, it was her passion. I’m thankful to have known her and being a small part of her life’s mission.
I remember Maria working in the back office along with Earl Watkins on the 2nd floor of the Musician’s building on Jones Street. In 1973 When the U.S.S. Enterprise returned from its final mission in Vietnam, Maria was handling some of the Union bookings. When the Navy requested a Band for the homecoming in Alameda, Maria arranged for our group to play on the second deck of the Enterprise. She was always helpful and of service to our members. R.I.P. Maria.
Maria was the best “PR” person the Union could ever have. I’ll bet I went to the office less than once a year and I surely wasn’t a big timer in the music business, but Maria always remembered me and always was ready to help with any question I had. She made me feel important and I’ll bet she had the same effect on everyone.
Maria was a wonderful lady. I’ve known her since I was fourteen years old. My dad, Merl Saunders, and my cousin Eddie Moore used to have rehearsals here. Maria was in charge of making sure the kids didn’t tear up everything. That was my first memory of Maria. I knew the ins and outs of 230 Jones St. because we played there so often. The one thing I can say about Maria is if you were behind in your dues, or if you were getting ready to be dropped, she always gave you a little call and said, ‘I’m calling you Tony to let you know you’re about to be dropped…’ She was just a great lady. Another thing I liked about her, the years changed, but she didn’t ‘cause she had a beehive from when I first knew her until the union moved here to 9th St. She had that hair style from when I was a little kid. So it was great to see. She had a warm heart. Whenever I called the union it was great to hear her voice because my whole life she’s answered the phone. She called me at Christmas time last year for a gig. She definitely has a place in my heart forever. She definitely makes me remember the union, that it is business but it is pleasure too. She added the fun part to it for me. I will miss her as I do all the people that have gone before her. She was definitely loved by Tony Saunders.
I was the conductor of the Oakland Municipal Band from 1995-97 and Maria helped me with the green sheets for the performances. Sometimes, she would chastise me for incomplete information, yet she was always “motherly” and wanted only to help participating musicians (and me) to get things right so everyone could get paid and be happy. Her East Coast accent was a hoot on the phone and she was truly a jewel of a person for Local 6!
When I returned from Europe after 6 years and rejoined the Musicians Union Local 6, I went back to school up the street at City College downtown 4th Street & Mission campus – every day I would walk over to Local 6 with my bow tie on from being a waiter in hospitality restaurant and go up to the reception window – Maria would slide open the glass and I’d say, “Hi Maria! Where’s the gigs?!” and she would laugh and we would talk and I’d tell her what was going on over at the school – and she would always tell me when there was a board meeting, she liked it when I sat in on the board meetings. (Only Earl Watkins liked it too.) Very often I would get thrown out when something was discussed that I wasn’t supposed to hear. Maria thought that was very entertaining. (This was before everybody had cell phones, and I was trying to get them to put in a payphone like there had been over on Jones Street – no luck there!)
One day I made my daily visit, Maria slides open the glass, I said, “Hi Maria, where’s the gigs?!” So she says, “I have a gig for you – I’m going to send you to the locked wards at Laguna Honda Hospital – play accordion and start on the west side and work your way over to the east side of the floor.”
So I played the gig, and next morning I got a call from Maria – she said: “Well, how did it go? Are you OK?” and I told her, it sort of ripped my heart out but I could handle it. – So she said to me something very heavy – “I’m just checking on you, because the last musician I sent over was a woman flautist – she had to put down her flute in the middle of the gig and was crying and couldn’t play anymore and she ran out.”
Oh my, you see this was the kind of person Maria was, she cared so much for the people who couldn’t go out – and she also cared for the musicians, and she was a real Humanist – we became quite close, she never missed my birthday and my anniversary with Jennifer and would call and sing happy birthday and happy anniversary with limericks – and I was her human alarm clock. She would call me a lot of times even when I was in New York and ask me for a wakeup call, she knew I was reliable – I’d call her and say “Rise and Shine Maria!” and she would – and she did!
God bless her soul, my deepest condolences for my/our good friend and long-serving Local 6 Maria!!
Over the years Maria and I spoke on the phone frequently regarding gigs, particularly Laguna Honda gigs when she coordinated the bookings. We played there together a few times, played at a couple of other retirement communities, and even did some St. Patrick’s Day gigs together. When she was ill I kept in touch the best I could and I gave her some referrals to caregivers my mother had used. She would always say that as fellow musicians we had to look out for one another. There is one memory of her that really stands out for me as an example of this. A number of years ago we were on the phone and I found myself telling her that I was not well due to a surgery I had where an error was made causing me to need another surgery. I had not shared this with many people but Maria had particular empathy because of some of the health problems she had endured. She said, “If you are going to have surgery and will not be able to work for a while, you’ll need some money. Let me see what I can do.” The next thing I knew she had applied to the Lester Petrillo fund for help for me and was able to procure a few hundred dollars which really helped a lot. That’s the kind of person she was. Big hearted. She will be missed.
“A great lady that helped me very much and went out of her way to help me. I know that we will all miss Maria.” — Roldon Vigil