As the Spirit Moves Me: Church organists play for decades

By Harley Flathers / AS THE SPIRIT MOVES ME

The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

Yes, church congregations can sing hymns without someone at the piano or organ. Many did when new churches were being formed in the mid 1800s. But it's a lot easier and very inspirational when someone sits at "the king of instruments" — the pipe organ. Think of the organists you remember from your childhood days.

I grew up at Sumner Center Evangelical Church 20 miles south of Rochester where my mother played piano and later the organ for 38 years. Before that she had played music in a Spring Valley church in the late teens for the Rev. John Thomas Oliphant, the father of Rochester's John Oliphant who just turned 100 a week ago.

The Mayo Clinic carillon was installed in the famous Plummer Building in 1928 with 28 bells from Croydon, England. Dr. Will Mayo hand-picked James Drummond as the first carilloneur until retiring in early 1958. I interviewed Drummond just after I came to KROC a few weeks earlier. He was followed by Dean Robinson who served thousands musically for 46 years.


Dean had also been the organist at his church in Mazeppa for many years. Dean was followed by Jeff Daehn, Mayo's present music maker above Rochester. Several years ago, 28 more bells were added to bring the total to 56.

It's huge daily exercise at least eight times a week as Jeff rides the elevator to the 15th floor of the Plummer Building and hikes up the last five flights on foot. The middle three of those five flights are like a circular staircase in a light house.

In earlier years, the carillon was played from floor 19 and it was a bit "breezy" up there. In 1977, a "cabin" was installed around the carillon and the people who play it, so now there's heat and air conditioning. Jeff plays Monday at 7 p.m. and each Wednesday and Friday at noon, plus daily for a half hour at 4:45 p.m. He also plays on holidays at 9 a.m. and in the evening.

Many of you remember Sid and Kathleen Norby, Rochester residents who worked a total of 69 years at Mayo Clinic, mostly in radiology. Sid began in 1943 until retiring in 1977. Kathleen was there from 1950 until 1985.

Kathleen was and still is a church organist for more than 60 years. Her early years were at the First Evangelical United Brethren Church followed by a few years at another downtown First Christian Church.

One day Pastor Vern Hylton from the new Homestead Evangelical United Brethren Church called her to be that church's organist, a position she held for more than 30 years. Today, Kathleen resides in Mesa, Ariz., and plays three services each Sunday at Velda Rose United Methodist Church, which has a membership of 1,500.

It's a very active church, filled with many who have retired and make the area a permanent home. Kathleen told me the church is building a huge storage building to hold tons of household merchandise that parishioners bring in for its twice-yearly rummage sales. That project brings in thousands of dollars for their outreach program.

I'm using memory now. I believe Fred Nitschke played the organ for more than 40 years at Trinity Lutheran Church in Rochester. Before he retired, Bob Scoggin played the organ at Christ United Methodist Church for 30 years, from 1963 until 1993, and occasionally since as needed. Bob still gives organ lessons to students here.


My memory bank includes the late Jerry Tupper as the organist at St. Francis Catholic Church in Rochester prior to his death in 1964. Yes, there are so many church organists who have stories and I know I'll hear more from you on this.

I've always wondered how an organist can keep track of the verses he or she is playing while the congregation sings. Do you suppose they might end a verse too early or start another verse when the rest of the congregation is done singing?

Next week: A look at St. Joachim's Catholic Church in Plainview.

Harley Flathers is a longtime Rochester-area broadcaster and historian. Got a church story or memory for Harley? Send it to or to Harley at Post-Bulletin, P.O. Box 6118, Rochester, MN 55903.

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