Bringing music to the masses
By Denise Baran-Unland Correspondent January 9, 2013 1:58PM
Phyllis Sterling, 83 of Joliet sits at the two manual pipe organ at Trinity United Methodist Church where she is now organist emeritus. Sterling recently retired after 65 years of service. | SUBMITTED PHOTO
Updated: February 11, 2013 6:09AM
Twice a week, Phyllis Sterling, 83, of Joliet exercises her grand piano and large Hammond organ with her favorite hymns and popular music from decades past.
Sterling, who has loved singing and playing music ever since she was a student at A.O. Marshall School in Joliet, recently retired after 65 years as organist at Trinity United Methodist Church in Joliet but not because she tired of the role. Arthritis made it difficult for Sterling to ascend and descend the sanctuary stairs.
“Few people realize that inside that plain red brick church there’s a beautiful two manual pipe organ with full foot pedals,” Sterling said. “Since 1947, I hardly ever missed a Sunday, except when I was sick. I served under 15 different ministers through the years.”
Sterling had been fresh out of high school when her teacher at the former Joliet Music College, where Sterling had taken piano lessons since early childhood, suggested she expand her skills to include playing the organ.
About the same time, Sterling, who often substituted for the church’s regular organist, was offered the full-time position at Trinity United Methodist Church. Eventually, Sterling dropped the piano lessons and worked at perfecting the organ.
“My teacher told me I was starting to play the piano like the organ,” Sterling said. “Organ notes run together; piano notes are more bouncy. I had taken piano lessons so long, I decided to stick with the organ.”
Jeanne Gray of Joliet, chairwoman of the church’s pastor parish committee, said Sterling’s loving and giving contributions will be missed. In her 65 years of service, Sterling had served on various committees in addition to playing the organ for all church services and major life events of its members.
“She’s like that rock that’s always been there,” Gray said. “She played for my wedding, both my daughters’ weddings and both my parents’ funerals, even though she was one of my mother’s best friends and it was very hard for her. She knows all the songs everyone loves and all the songs everyone needs.”
Because Sterling also grew up at Trinity United Methodist Church, her memories of that church are legion. Sterling recalls how her father, when he wasn’t working at the steel mill, would arrive early at the church to stoke the old furnace to warm the building for the attendees.
In later years, Sterling’s husband Glenn (now deceased) extended the life of the organ’s pedals by unscrewing them, removing the worn copper and replacing it with copper pennies before positioning the pedals back into place.
Once, in the middle of a sermon, one of those pedals fell with a loud boom. On another occasion, Glenn and his ingenuity delayed the need for a new motor by rigging up a car battery instead.
“Glenn could do everything to the organ except tune it,” Sterling said. “We had to hire someone to do that.”
In 1965, staff at the funeral home that is now called Blackburn-Giegerich-Sonntag Funeral Home invited Sterling to play for their funerals, too. Sterling jokes that she went to the home to plan her father’s funeral and left with a job. She’s less busy in recent years now that people prefer taped music, selections that were particular favorites of the loved ones, but her service is no less appreciated.
“She always showed up,” said Kathy Giegerich, a licensed funeral director for 25 years. “She knew all the music people wanted.”
Through the years, attendance has gradually dwindled at Trinity United Methodist Church, but that’s not what concerns Sterling today.
Now the church’s organist emeritus, Sterling worries about the fate of her own grand piano, which she has owned since junior high school. That piano had replaced Sterling’s old upright model.
“My family wants me to move but no one plays the piano,” Sterling said. “It’ll kill me to get rid of it because my father worked so hard to get it. He never made big money; he just worked at the steel mill. He bought it from a shop on Jackson Street that sold pianos and it took him years to pay for that piano.”