Two Lancaster County organists celebrate 70-year milestone in music ministry | Entertainment


A career as a judge is known for its lifetime tenure. But can any justice say they’ve spent 70 years on the bench?

Two local organists have the court beat in that regard.

Bill Rhoads and June Smith both celebrated 70 years of musical ministry for Pennsylvania churches this summer.

For Rhoads and Smith, the bench takes the form of a stiff, wooden seat in front of a church organ — but that’s not to diminish its importance.

From their respective benches, Rhoads and Smith have seen loved ones walk down the aisle to their partner. They’ve heard fond memories shared at funeral services and shared smiles with people sitting in pews. They’ve also formed lifelong friendships.

When Smith’s church, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Manheim, proposed a celebration on July 23 to thank her for decades of music, she humbly accepted, hesitant to step into the spotlight. Rhoads jokingly asked who from his church, Otterbein United Methodist Church in Lancaster, had “ratted him out” for reaching the milestone.

Neither were looking for recognition for their work. They were just pleased to serve their community.

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Finding the keys

For Smith, 88, that community is the church she has attended since she was 5 years old.

A lifetime resident of Manheim, Smith developed an interest in music from a young age. She began piano lessons at 5 years old and played the bass clarinet in high school. Around that time, she set her eyes on learning to play the pipe organ at her church. The instrument at St. Paul’s had three manuals, or keyboards, but Smith found her background in piano made learning easy.

By the time she was 18, Smith started playing full services as assistant organist.

After graduating high school, she assumed the role of secretary for a local Lancaster attorney and married in 1956 but still found time for music.

“I worked across from the courthouse, and I would take my (organ) lessons over my lunch hour,” Smith said.

At the time, she was paid $2 per church service and it cost her $5 for weekly lessons.

In 1972, Smith was promoted to full-time organist at St. Paul’s and has remained there ever since, not missing a single service despite being offered four weeks of vacation a year.

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Raised in Centre Hall, Centre County, Rhoads, 85, also started out as a piano player.

“My sister would come home from her piano lessons and then she would teach me about what she had learned,” Rhoads said. “I progressed on from there until my parents thought I should get with a regular teacher.”

When he was 7 or 8 years old, Rhoads’ father bought a Hammond organ, leading him to transfer his skills to the new instrument.

Not only was his sister his first teacher but also the reason for his first organ performance. In the early 1950s, his sister got married and wanted Rhoads to play for her wedding. He was 15 years old.

After high school, Rhoads musical journey took an unexpected turn when he enlisted in the military and was stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, for training in the late 1950s.

While there, Rhoads indicated on a form that he played the organ, not thinking much of it. He was surprised when the chaplain later asked him to be his assistant.

In that position, Rhoads played in the chapel and led the military choir. His work followed wherever the chaplain went, which led him to spend three years playing organs throughout Germany.

Music as connection

Rhoads retired from working at York auto parts manufacturer Federal Mogul in 2000. He joined Otterbein as the church organist then, expecting to stay there for only a year. Smith retired from secretarial work in 2011 but continued playing at St. Paul’s.

Both organists — who don’t know each other but are connected by the milestone — have found you don’t leave a place you’ve become so connected to that easily.

Throughout her 70 years, Smith has seen generations pass through St. Paul’s. One girl sticks out in her mind.

“I was sitting at the piano at one point,” Smith said. “This girl, she was only in about the third grade at that time, she came over and sat in my lap and looked at me.”

The girl proceeded to tell Smith all the details of her young life: friendships, crushes and all the adventures in between.

Years later, she asked Smith to be her mentor before an upcoming mission trip.

“She and her husband were just in church on Sunday with her two children,” Smith said. “Those are the ones you really get intertwined with.”

At Otterbein, Rhoads connects with parishioners with his out-of-the-box approach to music — he has a reputation for adding spice to hymnals on the spot.

With a practice in classical music but a heart for jazz, Rhoads likes to add chords not written in the score. Despite enduring many organ lessons instructing him to play the music as the composer intended, Rhoads can’t resist improvisation — to many parishioners’ enjoyment.

The Rev. Jonette Gay, pastor of Otterbein, appreciates the way Rhoads helps combine music and worship. Sometimes, he even takes it a step further with more mainstream tunes with the intent to guide her sermons.

“One time (I titled) my sermon ‘Don’t fence me in,’ ” Gay said. “And then I heard him sit down at the piano before I got up to preach and he plays the song by Cole Porter, ‘Don’t Fence Me In.’ It was really fun and I started singing with him.”

Meaningful moments

Seventy years means dozens of memories and connections made with parishioners. Rhoads and Smith have been present for some of people’s most joyful moments, like weddings or baptisms.

But they’ve also played for some of their saddest.

“You have to have a little bit of a hard shell when you do someone’s funeral,” Rhoads said.

The organists become attached to their congregations. Smith estimates she’s played for over 150 funerals, including those of her mother, sister, brother and husband.

But to her, playing at these funerals is a final act for those friends or family members. For any ceremony or Mass, she sees her playing as an act of service first and hopes that her music guides parishioners into their worship.

Some might think that 70 years seems like a satisfying time to retire — a nice decade to round off their career.

But Rhoads and Smith plan to keep playing until they can no longer do so skillfully, showing no desire to leave the bench.

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