Calling it quits: Organist has made music at Grace Lutheran for 56 years
WORTHINGTON -- Almost all her life, Eunice Baumgard has lived conveniently close to the rural Grace Lutheran Church, located just off Jackson County 34 on 340th Avenue. She grew up just down the road, on what was then Highway 16, and after marriage lived two miles south of the ELCA church.
"I've been a member all my life," said Eunice, whose maiden name is Janssen. "I was baptized here. ... My great-grandfather donated the land for the church."
As a young girl, she took piano lessons, so it was natural that she should assume the music duties there at age 15.
"The organist we had, Elsie Racine, was wanting to retire, and she convinced me that I could play for church," she recalled.
However, her debut didn't go as planned.
"The first day I was supposed to play, I got my fingers caught in the car door, so she had to play that day," Eunice said. "I didn't think I was (nervous), but I must have been. I went home, and somebody else went in and told Elsie that she'd have to play."
That was 1949, and Eunice recently resigned as Grace's organist after more than 56 years. She's shared the music duties with fellow organist Shirley King in more recent times.
"I started thinking about retiring three years ago, but it would come around to the annual meeting, and they'd say, 'Eunice and Shirley, organists?' and I'd say, 'Sure,' Eunice explained. "It was hard to write that note (of resignation) to the council. ... It was just getting to be a little stressful, and I knew Shirley would be the only one when I quit."
Grace's members certainly understood Eunice's decision, which was prompted by the onset of arthritis, although they were dismayed to lose her musical talents. The congregation presented her with an egg-shaped music box inscribed with "Blessings of Faith" that opens to reveal a cross.
"It was the perfect gift," she reflected.
During her tenure as organist, Eunice only went through two organs -- "both electronics, so they're not hard to play" -- but considerably more pastors.
"We've had 10 pastors and maybe six or seven interns," she counted. "I have gone through five different hymnals."
In her early years as organist, Eunice would pedal her bicycle to church to practice for the upcoming worship services, although she sometimes didn't know what was on that week's agenda.
"Back then, I didn't even know the numbers, the hymns we were going to be singing," she said. "I winged it. ... In a church this size, I often thought we didn't need a choir, because the whole congregation was the choir."
There was only one period of time in those five decades when Eunice wasn't on the organist roster at Grace Lutheran.
"In 1950, I got married and we went to Alabama for three months," she explained. "Somebody took the job for four or five months, then I took over again."
On Sundays when Eunice was busy at the organ, parenting duties became the sole responsibility of her husband, Merle.
"He thinks you should write the article about him," she said with a laugh. "We had six boys, and he says he had the worst job -- taking care of the kids. But they were always in church, and they were always well-behaved."
Like her predecessor, Eunice recruited her own helper and now full-time replacement -- Shirley Koster King.
"She says I talked her into being an organist," Eunice related. "She remembers how her dad had to come get her out of school to play for a funeral because she couldn't drive yet. She's now the full-time organist, although I told her I would pitch in if she really needed me."
Eunice has played the liturgy countless times and has no idea how many hymns are in her repertoire, although she does have some top choices.
"'How Great Thou Art,'" she listed as her all-time favorite. "I can't even sing some of the verses because I tear up. Now I'm getting to like some of the new songs, like the one about 'on eagles' wings,' but that's not the name of it," Eunice paged through the hymn supplement. "Here it is: 'You Who Dwell in the Shelter of the Lord.'"
Organist is a job that Eunice has enjoyed immensely over the years.
"In fact, when I first started playing, the council was trying to decide what salary I should get," she remembered. "I told somebody else I would do it for nothing, 'but don't tell the council that.'"
Eventually, Eunice suggested that the organists be paid a lump sum once a year instead of receiving small checks monthly, and she appreciated having that money to spend at Christmas time.
Eunice now sits in a pew during most church services, instead of at the organ bench, and she has no regrets about the transition. But she does have an appreciation for all the music that is such an integral part of the worship experience.
'When people come up and say that they enjoy the music, it really means a lot," she said. "Be sure and mention that to your organist once in a while, because you don't know what that means to them."