A Tribute



Frances Keefer Atkinson


May 24, 1920 - December 25, 2001


I smiled as I saw them ... the custodian, cleaning the space around the console of our pipe organ, had placed my soft moccasins on the organ pedals. Moccasins are not often worn by organists. Most purists wear the black patent shoes (which remind me of the tap shoes of my childhood). 

With that said, I never wanted to wear the black organist shoes. I did not formally study organ, taking about six lessons the summer after my sophomore year in high school. So one could say, "No wonder she wears those moccasins ... she really was never properly taught." But on this day of reflection, I can say my decision to wear moccasins came about when I heard one of the best organists, recording or otherwise, play the pipe organ at Park Hill United Methodist Church. Frances Atkinson, organist at PHUMC, created wondrous sounds at the organ ... she wore moccasins!! She could play anything, with or without music. She could transpose anything into any key - let her know what key you needed and she was there! Once the choir at PHUMC, of which I was a member, was singing a Stabat Mater. After an acappella portion, she knew instinctively our pitch had slipped, and was in the corrected key when she resumed her accompaniment, covering our error brilliantly! Amazing ... that's what Frances was ... and she wore moccasins!!

Frances never gave one organ lesson to me, yet most of what I know I learned by observing her. She never entered a service unprepared. Her music was rehearsed and was totally organized in sequence, her music ready to bless. She played only the great classics of the old and new composers: Buxtehude, Bach, Brahms, Handel, Mendelssohn, Widor, Franck, Manz, Langlais ... whatever was class, that's what Frances played ... in her moccasins!!

I grew up in a small South Georgia town, and at First Methodist, music of the caliber that she played was seldom heard, so I learned to love the music in her repertoire sitting by her side, turning pages for her on occasion. I was fortunate to observe her for three years, and I never knew the gift I was receiving from her until I later became a church organist, learning and using many of the pieces I heard her play. I realized what a mentor she had been to me ... she never knew it. She never knew how I grew. I never saw her again.

One of the joys of my life as a musician has been playing piano and organ duets. Frances introduced me to that joy. She invited me to play the piano with her on a wonderful arrangement of Malotte's, The Lord's Prayer. I was hooked on the magic of duets.  However, in the future I played the organ; the organ became my love ... my dearest love. Frances opened that door for me. Others down the road were instrumental in my becoming a church organist, but she set the standard for what I became.

Frances was married to a musician with an incredible voice. I observed one of the most beautiful exchanges between husband and wife when, after she performed a concert, he ... eyes blazing with pride, knew exactly what to say to her to let her know she had been wonderful ... a bouquet of just the right words of appreciation ... he understood and never hesitated to express and show his pride. I learned in observing this exchange, that to feel pride for someone and not express it to that person, only served to diminish me.

Yesterday I learned of the death of Frances. I was stunned. I had never let her know ... I had never thanked her for what she had given me. I always intended to ... but I never did. I had no idea where she might be since I last saw her in the 60's, but how sad that I never found some way to reach her. A hard lesson to learn. But this morning, playing in my moccasins (which she said were better at "feeling" the pedals), I am convinced she heard me play, and thus understood the gift she gave me those many years ago.

Thank you Frances. Perhaps I can repay you by being more dedicated to letting those who touch my life in such a positive and wonderful way know what they have meant to me. If I can stick to that, perhaps you will have given me an even greater gift!

~ Beverly Smith (Zacharias) Herrington          

Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2002


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