Sweet, new sound honors memory of an old friend

Tribute: A Westminster church dedicates an addition to its organ to the woman who played it for a decade.

November 21, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

When he plays the organ's clarinet keys at St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Westminster, Ted Dix thinks of Evelyn Winfrey.

Winfrey, who died last year of cancer at age 71, was the church's organist for 10 years and was known for her genteel style and steely determination.

"The sound makes me think of her. It's a sweet sound, but it sounds clear and firm, and that's what she was like," said Dix, who took over as organist when Winfrey retired in 1997.

Winfrey was remembered in services Nov. 14 when the church dedicated a $5,000 clarinet stop -- a system that allows an organ to play clarinet music -- to her. A brass plaque acknowledging Winfrey's service is to be placed in the vestibule in the next few weeks.

"It's a way of acknowledging all that she did for this church and the people in it," said the Rev. Leo Maley, pastor at St. Paul's.

St. Paul's new stop, made of 61 metal pipes, was installed a few weeks ago to replace a worn-out one. The organ can play 25 instruments, including the trumpet, flute, oboe and strings.

Dix said the 58-year-old organ needed the stop to play clarinet parts, which have become a key ingredient in today's church music.

"People don't realize how complicated church organs are, and they don't think of the range of music they produce," Dix said.

By dedicating the stop to Winfrey, the church honored a woman who was considered an institution in Westminster. Winfrey also was organist at the United Methodist Church and was a longtime music director, organist, music professor and director of the choir at Western Maryland College.

She provided music for two generations of college students, countless commencements, two presidents' inaugurations and more than 600 weddings.

"She was one of those people who touched a lot of lives," said James E. Lightner, a semiretired math professor and a former choir member at Western Maryland.

A tribute to Winfrey also was held Nov. 14 at Western Maryland.

Friends also praised Winfrey's diplomacy, noting she often had to work with church and college committees composed of people with varying tastes and opinions.

"It's dealing with the people who decide on the right music for a big service that's the hardest thing. It's like getting through a minefield of egos," said Charles Swinderman, a friend and the retired organist at St. John's Catholic Church in Westminster.

Born in Savannah, Ga., Winfrey earned a bachelor's degree from Wesleyan Conservatory, now Wesleyan College, in Macon, Ga., in 1948 and a master's degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., in 1951.

She started at Western Maryland College in 1951 and taught four years before taking a leave to raise four children. She returned to the college in 1966 and stayed until 1994.

Friends say Winfrey developed an eclectic taste in music. She directed a college choir that performed music from the 16th century, taught courses in jazz and keyboard, and took students to Hawaii to study the music of Oceania.

"She always found something positive to say, even if the people she was working with weren't that talented," Lightner said.

Lightner and other friends said that Winfrey also had a gentle nature that masked a steely resolve in her approach to life.

"Underneath the gentility was a rock of stability, all the time," Lightner said. "The phrase that comes to mind is `steel magnolia.' "

Winfrey's husband, Robert, said he learned early that his wife was no pushover.

He said he enrolled in her music appreciation class in her first year of teaching at Western Maryland, expecting an easy course to complete his junior year requirements.

But he dropped the course after one class session, opting instead for a less-challenging course on charcoal drawing.

"There was too much work involved in her class, a lot more than I had bargained for," said Winfrey, 71. "She really put her students through their paces."

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