John A. Sweeney, 79, Morgan State teacher and church organist

February 09, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John A. Sweeney, a music teacher who was on the faculty of Morgan State University for more than three decades and was highly regarded as a church organist, died of complications from a stroke Thursday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. The Towson resident was 79.

Dr. Sweeney was born in New York City, the son of a Methodist minister, and raised in the Bronx. He developed an early interest in music. As a teenager, he played the organ at his father's church, St. Mark's United Methodist in Harlem, said his wife of 27 years, the former Veronica Kahn.

"He also studied at the Juilliard School of Music while going to high school," she added.

He served in the Army from 1944 to 1946 as a member of the 327th Armed Forces Band in Germany and subsequently earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in music at New York University.

A Fulbright scholar, he studied musicology and earned his doctorate during the 1950s at the University of Berlin. In 1965, he earned another master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Sweeney, who also played French horn and piano, began teaching jazz and worldwide music at Morgan in 1961.

"He was a world-renowned organist who was not the least bit temperamental, as many musicians are who are so gifted," said Homer E. Favor, a retired Morgan economics professor and dean. "He was a warm and personable man who was somewhat shy and retiring, but had no peer when he sat down at the organ. And at the climax of a piece, he'd always let the last note slowly fly away."

He played at the Morgan Christian Center and was organist for several area churches, including for more than a decade at Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore.

"While he was well-trained in Bach and other classical music, he realized that black church music and hymns were a big part of our worship experience. He was never snobby about those hymns and played them as written," said the Rev. Vernon Dobson, pastor of Union Baptist. "And when you heard him play, you knew you were in the presence of greatness. He gave each note the proper dimension, timing and clarity."

Dr. Sweeney also was known for his two-minute solo organ interludes during services and liked dedicating hymns to ill church members.

Dr. Sweeney retired from Morgan and Union Baptist Church in 1993.

He enjoyed traveling and exotic food, particularly Indian and Caribbean dishes. "The more you spiced it up, the better he liked it," said a stepson, Dereck A. Donovan of Perry Hall.

Services will be held at noon Friday at the Lemmon Funeral Home, 10 W. Padonia Road in Timonium.

In addition to his wife and stepson, Dr. Sweeney is survived by another stepson, Allan L. Donovan of Queens, N.Y.; a stepdaughter, Peitra A. Donovan of Joppa; a sister, Elizabeth Wilkins of Chicago; and five grandchildren. His previous marriage ended in divorce.

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