If there's a heaven, Thomas Schleis is there at the piano, accompanying the opera singer Maria Callas.
Mr. Schleis, a beloved lecturer, opera coach and opera manager at the University of Illinois, died at his home in Urbana on Wednesday afternoon. The Champaign County coroner attributed his death to natural causes. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Mr. Schleis was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of opera, his bon vivant ways, his wicked wit and the kindness and encouragement he gave hundreds of students who passed through the UI Opera Program as well as everyone else he met.
"He certainly was a unique human being, exceedingly brave, courageous, generous, and about the kindest person I ever knew," said Eduardo Diazmunoz, director of the UI Opera Program. "He never complained about anything in spite of his always frail health, and I guess we all know that his health problems caused him more pain than we shall ever know.
"He taught us so many lessons in life by example, not only in opera, a world in which his knowledge was vast. I still don't know how the opera program will get along without him." Diazmunoz had planned a surprise celebration for Mr. Schleis's 25th anniversary with the program. He will now dedicate the 2012-13 season to his colleague's memory.
Mr. Schleis joined the UI faculty in 1981 and became the opera program vocal coach in 1987. He also taught classes and was a musical consultant for the UI Department of Theatre.
The public knew Mr. Schleis in various ways. One was through the concert program notes he had written since 1984 for Sinfonia da Camera and since 1979 for the UI Opera Program.
He also gave pre-concert lectures for 25 years at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and was an organist for 33 years at St. John's Chapel on campus.
Mr. Schleis also taught for 10 years in the UI Office of Continuing Education's community non-credit programs, Elderhostel programs and senior scholars programs. In 2005 he received an outstanding instructor award from the Illinois Lifelong Learning and Service Coalition.
As a lecturer in the School of Music he received the Excellence in Teaching and Faculty Service Award.
And from 1979 to 1980 Mr. Schleis was a freelance music critic for The News-Gazette, writing 44 pieces by his count. He famously lost that position after writing a mixed review of Luciano Pavarotti's 1980 concert at Krannert Center. Shortly after his review was published, a critic for The New York Times panned a Pavarotti recital at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
A Wisconsin native, Mr. Schleis studied piano at Lawrence University and received a master's degree in musicology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Funded by a Fulbright, he did research in Germany on opera. He came to the UI to do advanced work and stayed.
"I'm very happy here," he told The News-Gazette in 2005. "I certainly love the town. The UI music library is such a fine music library, and we have so many gifted students. That's the pleasure of staying here."
Many of his former students are among Mr. Schleis' 2,860 Facebook friends. Many posted remembrances on his page upon learning of his death.
Brett Schleis wrote that it was wonderful to see the "many great messages" from people whose lives had been touched by his cousin.
"He was an amazing friend, mentor, counselor, and cousin to me," Brett Schleis wrote. "He was immensely thoughtful and never forgot a word that he heard. His interactions with students and his time at the University of Illinois meant everything to him."