At one of the anniversary celebrations for Lexington Philharmonic music director George Zack, the time came for Sugar Slabaugh to say a few words about his wife, Kerry Zack.
"I toasted her saying she was not the woman behind the conductor," Slabaugh says. "She was always beside him. They were an equal partnership."
Lutricia Woods remembered Mrs. Zack as the perfect boss, when she worked for her at the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
"She was always concerned that our work did not consume us," Woods says. "And she was such a wonderful example, you wanted to model yourself after her. She worked very hard, but she knew how to enjoy life and have fun."
Mrs. Zack died Thursday at Indiana University's Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis after a short battle with lung cancer. She was 71.
During four decades in Lexington, she enjoyed the reflected glow of being married to one of the most famous men in Lexington in Zack, who conducted the Lexington Philarmonic from 1972 until his retirement in 2008. But Tuesday, friends emphasized that Mrs. Zack was her own person with her own passions and accomplishments from organizing the education program at the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky to coordinating the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership at the Prichard Committee.
"She had the love of her life in George," Woods recalled, "but she never used her place as his wife to gain favor. She was the most real person I ever knew, and she didn't vary from the person she was."
She was born Dec. 23, 1942, in Montclair, N.J., and received a bachelor's degree in art history from the University of California Berkeley in 1964 and a master's in library science from Indiana University in 1968.
"Going to a museum with her was like having your own personal docent," said Slabaugh, who often traveled with her. "She knew so much, it was refreshing and wonderful to be around her."
But she was also up for having fun, Woods said, recalling her little stuffed mice in karate jackets that played the song Kung Fu Fighting, which she would use to tell people in training sessions it was time for small groups to end and come back together.
And Mrs. Zack did enjoy the role of the maestro's wife.
George Zack would sometimes say he felt bad that he could never go to Philharmonic concerts with Kerry because he was on stage. But Slabaugh recalled she used the time and her four tickets to the performances to help build the audience.
"She would always find people she thought would be great additions to the Philharmonic family and invite them to the concerts," Slabaugh said.
Scott Terrell, Zack's successor as the Philharmonic's music director, said Tuesday, "Her passion for all the good things that come from music and the arts is evident in so many areas of our community."
At Saturday's season-opening Philharmonic concert, Terrell will conduct the orchestra in a performance of Nimrod from Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations in Mrs. Zack's honor.
When George Zack laid down his baton in 2008, he knew exactly what he wanted to do in retirement.
"I'm going to wander around and enjoy myself, with that special lady over there in the black and white," Zack said at a retirement gala. "She is the love of my life, and there is no possibility of me not having fun."
Slabaugh says the Zacks did enjoy retirement, spending a lot of time at their home at Kiwah Island, S.C., and relocating last year to Fishers, Ind., to be closer to their grandchildren who called her Yama.
She is survived by her husband; daughters Katherine Bender and Melissa Johnston; brothers Jeff Sheehan and Andy Sheehan; and grandchildren Zackary and Thomas Bender and Chloe and Timothy Johnston.
There will be a celebration of her life at 4 p.m. Oct. 11 at Lexington's Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. The family suggests donations in her honor to the Relay for Life or a charity of the donor's choosing.