AK: Resurrecting the 52-year-old pipe organ at Fort Greely’s chapel

Art Thompson fiddls with the organ at Fort Greely Chapel (Photo by Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks)

The old pipe organ in the chapel at Fort Greely will soon again be belting out gospel tunes, if Army officials approve the post chaplain’s request to allow a pipe-organ expert from Nenana restore the rare 52-year-old instrument.

When Art Thompson fired up the old pipe organ earlier this month, it blared out a single note called a cipher that just wouldn’t go away.

“And it’s a trumpet, too,” Thompson said. “That’s not a good one to be stuck.”

Thompson’s a semi-retired broadcast engineer with a 35-year passion for pipe organs.

“I’ve always loved pipe organs,” Thompson said. “I’ve worked on and off on them professionally over the last, gosh, almost 35 years.”

He’s excited about the one at the Fort Greely chapel. It’s one of about a half-dozen playable organs statewide. And it’s in pretty good shape.

“There’s a lot of little things that are going to have to be gone through on it,” Thompson said. “From what I understand, it hasn’t played in a number of years.”

A lot of those little things involve catch up maintenance, like pedalboard adjustment, to stop the pedals from sticking, which is what caused the cipher.

“OK, we should be able to get the full organ sound now that I’ve got that note quieted down. So this is pretty much everything it has,” Thompson said as he blasted the keys at full volume.

The Fort Greely Chapel (Photo by Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks)

Thompson says despite some wear and tear and a bit of water damage it’s suffered over the years, the organ still has a pretty good sound.

“When you consider the mechanical complexity of this, of this, ’it’s really quite amazing that it even works,” Thompson said.

Thompson says it needs a full tuning, and some of the 916 pipes need attention. But it sounds better than it did when he first sat down at the keyboard back in December.

“It took a while to wake it up, by the way,” Thompson said. “I think Chaplain Fritts can attest to that. When we first got here, hardly anything played.”

That’s Lieutenant Colonel Paul Fritts, the post chaplain. Fritts says he’s asked around, but nobody has been able to tell him how long it’s been since anyone has played the organ.

“I can’t say when it was last played. It’s probably been many, many years,” Fritts said.

Fritts says he’s wanted to get the organ up and running since he arrived on post last summer, to accompany the singing of hymns. He says he’s got a sort of old-school belief in the important role hymns play in church services.

“I think the hymns of the faith have great messages. And I think they, much like pipe organs, have kind of fallen to the fringes, the margins of our worship,” Fritts said. “And I’m a champion for opening up the hymn books, dusting them off and (for) the church to re-acquaint itself with the hymns of the faith.”

Thompson came to Alaska a few years ago from Portland, Oregon, where he worked as organ curator at a small Christian college. He came here to take a job with a Nenana-based Christian radio network. He met Fritts in December, after the chaplain who’d been looking for someone to fix the organ contacted him. So Thompson drove 160 miles to Fort Greely to check it out.

“To have a real acoustic instrument like this is just phenomenal,” Thompson said. “It’s just really unusual. You find much larger military installations that don’t have anything like this in their chapel.”

And it’s not just any old pipe organ – it’s a Fritts organ, built by Seattle-based organ-maker R. Byard Fritts – no relation to the chaplain. R. Byard Fritts came to Fort Greely in 1966 to install it.

“Mind you, this was in the mid-60s. They hauled all this stuff up here. And that was quite a task in and of itself,” Thompson said. “I mean, the highway wasn’t what it is today. They got all this stuff here, in the middle of nowhere. And organ pipes are rather fragile, actually. They’re made out lead and tin alloy.”

Thompson reckons he needs about 60 more hours to get the organ sounding the way it should. That’d be thousands of dollars’ worth of labor. But Thompson is offering to do it free.

“Before my hearing goes and before I can no longer do this, I’d like to see what I can do to keep some of these instruments going so that a future generation can take up the torch at some point,” Thompson said.

Fritts, the chaplain, says the Army appreciates Thompson’s offer. And he’d to get to work right away, but they’ve got to wait ’til his the request makes its way the military bureaucracy.

“The Army marches at its own pace,” Fritts said. “But we hope to hear something soon.”

And as the chaplain well knows, only an act of God could speed up that process.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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