Ellis Hershman, 76, of Huntingdon Valley, a lifelong musician, insurance executive, and former chairman of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, died Sunday, Jan. 30, of complications from COVID-19 at Holy Redeemer Hospital in Meadowbrook.
Born in 1945, Mr. Hershman was a young musician when Philadelphia emerged as a center for folk and bluegrass music in the late 1950s and ’60s, and he embraced the genres for their traditional acoustic simplicity and storytelling lyrics.
A captivating raconteur himself, he played guitar and banjo, and became involved with the Philadelphia Folksong Society, which formed in 1957, and went on to serve in several leadership roles for the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which is set to celebrate its 60th anniversary in August.
As chairman of the festival in the early 1970s, Mr. Hershman helped organize and produce the multiday music show that has featured Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Doc Watson, Judy Collins, Janis Ian, Al Stewart, Tom Paxton, Jim Croce, and countless other stars since 1962.
One of the festival’s best features over the years, Mr. Hershman, then its business coordinator, told the New York Times in 1977, was its inclusion of unheralded up-and-coming performers.
“We’re a showcase,” he told the Times. “We like that reputation. Audiences expect it of us. One of the exciting things about the festival is wondering who you’ll see who’ll make it as a star in the next few years.”
In 1988, Mr. Hershman became president of commercial accounts at Heritage Insurance Services Inc., in Feasterville, and, using his appreciation for vintage musical instruments — especially Martin guitars, and Vega and Fairbanks banjos — he expanded the company’s offerings to include such valuable items.
His 1998 ad in the American String Teacher journal touts Heritage’s coverage for “dealers, makers, musicians and collectors of instruments from $1,000 to $15,000,000 in value on custom policies of the highest quality.”
Mr. Hershman’s company became involved with several high-profile thefts of vintage instruments, and he was featured in news reports about the incidents. “We just want to get the things back,” he told the Charlotte Observer after the 1995 theft of a valuable violin and two violas. “They can’t be sold because they’re too easily identifiable.”
Mr. Hershman was born June 4, 1945, in Philadelphia. He graduated from Northeast High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in education at Temple University.
He was drawn to the guitar as a young man and, with guidance from his older brother, Denis, dived into the Philly folk and bluegrass music scene. He played in a bluegrass band for a time, and the brothers attended guitar workshops around town, traveled to music festivals, hung out at clubs, and talked tunes with players who visited the area on tour.
Mr. Hershman married Toni Walzer in 1972, and they had son Matthew. After a divorce, he married Anna Marie Getty, and they had daughter Janessa and son Noah. Noah died earlier.
“He brought people together,” his wife said. “He had a way of controlling negative energy and was gentle even if he got angry.”
Mr. Hershman liked to fish and walk the beach in Sea Isle City. He told lots of jokes and had a dry sense of humor and strong religious faith. “Every time I saw him over the years he would go out of his way to make you feel special,” a friend wrote in an online tribute.
He taught his son Matthew to play guitar, and they were close friends as well as family. “He was a gentle spirit,” his son said. “He was a selfless guy whose genuineness made people feel comfortable.”
It didn’t matter, said his daughter, whether they caught anything when they fished together. His mere presence gave her a sense of peace and unconditional love. “He was my hero,” she said.
In addition to his wife, former wife, and children, Mr. Hershman is survived by five grandchildren and other relatives. His brother died earlier.
A service is to be held Saturday, March 19, from 2 to 4 p.m. at Calvary Chapel, 13500 Philmont Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19116.
Donations in his name may be made to Jewish Voice Ministries International, P.O. Box 81439, Phoenix, Ariz. 85069.