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Glass Armonica Maker Vanishes

From the Boston Globe on 05/09/99.

Waltham man's disappearance baffling
By Tatsha Robertson, Globe Staff

On Thursday afternoon, Gerhard Finkenbeiner, renowned for resurrecting Benjamin Franklin's glass harmonica, walked out the door of his Waltham glass laboratory, telling employees he was running home for a spell. Almost two hours later, at about 2:45 p.m., the 69-year-old German native was seen at Norwood Memorial Airport, gearing up his two-engine Piper Cherokee and then flying into a cloudy sky. It was the last time anyone has seen him. "This is a total mystery," said one of his employees.

What has baffled Waltham police, aviation officials, and friends of the man known for his regimented ways is that his actions prior to his disappearance were uncharacteristic of him. Aviation officials said they can only assume Finkenbeiner, an experienced pilot, was headed to Jaffrey, N.H., where he has a second home, because he didn't file a flight plan. Lieutenant David Currier, a spokesman for the Civil Air Patrol, said authorities found Finkenbeiner's car at the Norwood airport and a second car at the Jaffrey airport.

Yesterday, an aviation team started to search the grounds around the Norwood airport to see if the plane went down before ever reaching New Hampshire, said Currier. Currier said the team also checked 26 airports in Massachusetts, three in New Hampshire, and six in Rhode Island, in case Finkenbeiner took a spontaneous trip and landed elsewhere.

"It could be either one or two things. He could have flown somewhere else instead of the usual place. It could turn out to be nothing," said Waltham Police Lieutenant Leo Kiley. "I hope that happened. I hope he is having a real good time," said the employee, who did not want to be identified. "We just want him to call and let us know he is OK."

On the day of his disappearance, the weather was cloudy but there was enough visibility, said Currier. Finkenbeiner's employee said his boss never flies without meticulously charting his route and leaving the information at the glass shop. "But he didn't do it this time, he didn't tell anybody anything. He just said he was going home for a few minutes." On Thursday, Finkenbeiner left the shop at 1 p.m. When he missed a Friday morning doctor's appointment, worried employees went to police.

Finkenbeiner, who moved with a nervous, energetic air, was born on the German-Swiss border. At the age of 14 during War World II he was forced to learn the glass-blowing trade to assist in the German war effort. He moved to France and then to Boston in the 1960s. He worked as a glass blower for Brandeis University. Nearly 10 years ago, he founded G. Finkenbeiner Inc., which makes glass products for the medical industry.

But it would be the glass harmonica, a rare 18th-century musical instrument invented by Franklin in 1761, that made Finkenbeiner a semi-celebrity. The instrument, originally called the "glass armonica" gave off such a strange sound that it was rumored in Colonial days to have supernatural powers and cause people to go insane, said the company employee. Finkenbeiner saw the harmonica more than 40 years ago while in Paris. He created his own version of the instrument and it has been used at the Metropolitan Opera and in radio commercials and movie tracks such as Interview With A Vampire.

Finkenbeiner isn't married but has three adult children outside the state, said his employee, and flew at least once a week to New Hampshire. Finkenbeiner so valued his pilot license that he always followed rules by the book. Bad weather always prevented him from flying, said the employee. Mayling Garcia of New Mexico said Finkenbeiner five years ago taught her on the telephone how to play the glass harmonica. She excelled and flew to Massachusetts several days ago for a performance next week. She met her instructor for the first time on Wednesday when Finkenbeiner picked her up at the airport.

On Thursday, she was at his shop when he told his employees he would return in a few minutes. "Now I am here waiting at his home as a guest. This is horrible," said Garcia.

This story ran on page B01 of the Boston Globe on 05/09/99.