Orange County

Peter Kramer: A life spent in healing and music

Peter Kramer and wife, Susan Gladin, on their wedding day.
Peter Kramer and wife, Susan Gladin, on their wedding day. COURTESY OF SUSAN GLADIN

In 1978, Peter Kramer purchased 50 acres of land in Orange County and named it “Down Yonder Farm.” He met Susan Gladin, his wife of 33 years, there when she attended a party where people played volleyball and her car got a flat tire. On the farm they raised two daughters, swam in the pond and split more wood than they could count to heat their home.

On that land he also put into practice his lifelong interests in music and connecting people.

“Some people called him a musical alchemist,” his wife said.

A mental health care worker by trade, Kramer was a music enthusiast to the core, playing guitar in a number of local groups over the years. In the 1980s he tore down an old tobacco barn and built the “Music Barn,” a gathering space for musicians and home to countless impromptu jam sessions, well-planned musical fetes and old timey throwdowns.

His older daughter, Jessie Gladdek, said her first memories were of square dancing.

“He and I sang and played a lot together when I was a teenager,” she said. “He always said he was a great rhythm guitarist, and a great backup vocalist. He was always the supporter, and that was kind of his nature as a person in general.”

Kramer, 63, died this month after a years-long battle with esophageal cancer. He left a legacy of believing in others – whether musicians or clients, friends or colleagues – more than they dared believe in themselves.

Advancing others

Kramer was born in New York City and raised in Westchester County. He fell in love with the rock and roll of his youth and picked up the guitar as a teen. While a student at Duke University, he studied political science, falling deeply in love with the South and its musical traditions.

After graduation he embarked on a career in mental health, first organizing field trips for juvenile patients in psychiatric hospitals, later serving as executive director for Hassle House, one of the area’s first crisis response centers. He spent the bulk of his career as a counselor.

Kramer’s inquisitive nature and ability to push people served him well professionally.

“He was like a nosy Southern woman who would say, ‘Who are your people?’ ” his wife said, and with that he’d make connections to provide services. “I think he did that way more than the average therapist does.”

When Kramer became excited about the work his friend Geraldine Dawson was doing at the Duke Center for Autism, he nominated her as a News & Observer Tar Heel of the Week. Dawson balked, insisting publicity wait until the project was more established, but Kramer insisted that she be celebrated. The resulting 2014 article landed on the desk of a doctor at Duke who was able to direct $1 million in grant funds towards her cause.

Dawson emailed Kramer on the morning of what turned out to be the last day of his life to thank him. His name will be on the wall of the Duke Center for Autism, she told him, beside the others who helped make it possible.

‘You can do this’

Kramer put his passion for promoting and supporting others most often towards musicians. His longtime friend, musician Geoff Hathaway, founded the Hillsborough Jazz Festival. Hathaway credits Kramer’s belief in the endeavor, as well as Kramer’s countless hours helping to lift stage equipment, as a major part of its success.

“He said, ‘Geoff, you can do this.’ And he’d coach me,” Hathaway said. “He’d give you the pants, the shoes, and anything else you needed. I’ve never met a person that’s as giving.”

Over the years word of Kramer’s enthusiasm and spirit of inclusion spread, and the Music Barn was host to numerous album recordings, a practice area for artists on tour and once, even, a jam session for the late Clarence Clemons, saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Tradition to continue

For more than 33 years Kramer carried in his wallet a photo of his wife and him taken on their wedding day. He told his daughters to “find someone who amuses you,” Gladdek said. “He and my mom laughed a lot.”

In the effort to keep his vision alive, his family has established the Down Yonder Fund, currently through the Shared Visions Foundation. The fund will allow the buildings on the farm to remain in use for the creative arts, to keep 35 years worth of community alive and engaged, just as he’d want them to be.

“The people he believed in, he lifted up,” Gladdek said.

News researcher David Raynor contributed.