Tinker Jim Akright, man of mischief and conscience

JACQUES KELLY

October 14, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

Reservoir Hill residents remember Jim Akright as a man who loved a good martini, fashioned a reliable burglar alarm out of washing machine parts and kept working pipe organs on every floor of his house.

He collapsed Oct. 1 and died of a heart attack within minutes. Doctors had given him three months to live when he suffered major heart damage six years ago. They advised no hard work, alcohol or smoking. He shattered all their rules and suffered his fatal attack while moving heavy pipe organ parts at a Southwest Baltimore storage warehouse.

He was nearly 6 feet tall, with a beard and hearty, dry laugh. He said he'd never wear a pair of shoes that cost more than $6. He liked plaid bell-bottom pants and bought his shirts from a Goodwill store.

He once walked out of Union Memorial Hospital's coronary care unit to buy a pack of cigarettes at a convenience store around the corner. He was forever a mixture of mischief and conscience.

A "celebration of life" for Akright, who was 62, will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, 1900 St. Paul St.

His letterhead said James F. Akright was an organ builder and musical instrument maker. In truth, he was a man who could fix almost anything.

Neighbors called on him when their skylights leaked or their radiators stopped working. He was equally at home in the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall or a Monroe Street basement.

Jim and his wife, Mary Lewis Akright, moved to Baltimore about 18 years ago and settled in a large Victorian house at Mount Royal Terrace and Lennox Street.

He had been living in a small Cape Cod-style home in the Washington suburbs, but fell in love with Baltimore's big old residences and their neighborhoods.

He gobbled up the city's character, but in reality was the kind of man who brought character to whatever place he brightened.

It's hard not to think of Akright when walking or driving over the North Avenue Bridge, that 1890s monument to permanency in engineering. In the 1970s, the city renovated the stone-arch span and was about to trash its sturdy and ornate iron railings.

Akright did not care for modern aluminum side guards. He rang every bell in the area and carried his protest to City Hall. He called the newspapers. Before long, the iron railings had been restored.

He was a one-man committee for historic preservation along Mount Royal Terrace, the neighborhood where he lived just south of Druid Hill Park.

He battled the presence of obnoxious billboards there.

Woe to any dog walker he spotted who failed to tidy up after a pet left a calling card.

He fought Odell's nightclub before the zoning board. He vowed that his Baltimore would never turn into another Towson or Glen Burnie.

Born in Eureka, Kan., he was a natural tinkerer who was building and repairing pipe organs by the time he was in high school.

As a young man, he outfitted a Thunderbird so that he could

sleep in it while making the rounds of small towns and cities, repairing wheezing and temperamental church organs.

And while he was not religiously observant, he kept many a choir and congregation filled with sweet music.

Jim's home burglar alarm remains a Reservoir Hill legend. He made it from Maytag washing machine timers, pneumatic tubes and pipe organ parts. It's completely mechanical, absolutely free of microchips. There's even a fail-safe device. Should a thief get into the house and reach for a $10 bill somehow attached to an automobile distributor, more bells and sirens go off. It's pure Rube Goldberg and pure Jim Akright.

Akright fitted his basement workshop with an exhaust system. It's part coffee can, rainspout and organ blower hose. The filter is an old flowered blanket.

It functions perfectly.

One bitterly cold Christmas Eve, a neighbor called Akright and asked him if he could get a stalled furnace working. Jim disappeared into the cellar and emerged 20 minutes later. He made the repair with a Lincoln penny.

He fixed hundreds of pipe organs and built several for his own home, literally one for every floor.

These organs can be easily moved. The Smithsonian used one for a recording of Handel's "Messiah" several years ago.

He was also an organ consultant to the Peabody Conservatory.

Akright was no musical snob. He enjoyed fingering out Cole Porter songs on a Hammond electric organ he kept in his living room.

About 20 years ago, a new pipe organ was being installed in the Kennedy Center. Some of the pipes and the wind chests that supplied them were not working.

The organ technicians called on Akright at his home for emergency consultation on a faulty wind reservoir. Akright thought about it, ducked into the other room and made the repair.

He used a piece of elastic cut from his deceased father-in-law's athletic supporter.

Some 20 years later, the emergency patch is still holding.

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