Alumni’s Love for Building, Teaching and Playing Make Augustana Pipe Organ Restoration Possible

“Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through music.” — Martin Luther

Augustana University’s tracker pipe organ has a storied history, and several Augustana alumni have written long chapters in its book.

This summer, John Nordlie ‘74 renewed his deep connection with the pipe organ when J.F. Nordlie Company was called on to restore the 38-year-old instrument. With some design help from Drs. Merle Pflueger and Mary Helen Schmidt, Nordlie and his crew meticulously hand-crafted the organ, beginning in the summer of 1981. The business administration major says he had hoped to restore the instrument before retiring in 2021, when he’ll turn the majority of his company over to one of his employees.

Nordlie says Augustana’s organ, located in the university’s Chapel of Reconciliation, had begun to show its age — inside and out. 

“We don’t really want to change the sound of the instrument that much; we just want it to have a cleaner, clearer voice,” Nordlie added.

After the funds were secured to refurbish the instrument, Nordlie and his team got to work; straightening the larger, soft metal pipes that were starting to fatigue and placing support racks to hold them into position. The keyboards were replaced entirely; with an updated system, they will be quieter and more precise. The original reverse color keyboards were replaced with more traditional white naturals and ebony sharps. The suspended key system for the manual or Postiv was redesigned and manufactured so any swings in humidity will have less effect on key position. They removed the organ’s pedalboard and replaced the worn maple caps and ebony sharps, and refinished the frame. The company built a new bench, including a new mechanism to set the height. Much of the felt and leather in the organ — worn from years of use — were also replaced. The three reservoirs and blower box, located underneath the organ, were completely rebuilt due to water damage. Nordlie says the reservoirs now settle into the closed position when the organ is turned off, rather than abruptly dropping and making noise, thanks to a new check valve system installed within the reservoirs. The strikers on the Zimbelstern were also replaced so the bells ring a bit more randomly. The organ’s facade has also taken on a fresher appearance with the pipes cleaned and polished, and the solid red oak case work reoiled. The ongoing pandemic helped Nordlie and his crew as they were able to isolate themselves on campus and work on the instrument in the chapel without any disturbance.

Augustana Campus Pastor Rev. Ann Rosendale ‘04 noted, “It is quite a thing to see a tracker organ like this dismantled and reassembled. The trade of organ building is truly an artform.”

The Builder

This marks the second time the pipe organ has been refurbished (the first was in 1987, when the third manual, Positiv, was added) since it was officially dedicated as the John and Agnes Siverson Organ on December 4, 1983. Nordlie says at that time, Augustana had taken a chance on him. The organ was the fifth instrument he had ever built after completing a two-year apprenticeship with the renowned Noack Organ Co. out of Georgetown, Massachusetts.

Nordlie said, “We’ve been taking care of the instrument ever since then. If anyone knows anything about mechanical action organs, they will last for many, many years. There are instruments in Europe that are more than 500 years old. But it isn’t that they last without being taken care of. They have to be rebuilt every once in a while, they have to be looked after. That’s what we’ve done here.”

While he wasn’t an organist or musician, Nordlie discovered his love for building them while at Augustana through his mentor A. Eugene Doutt. Since then, Nordlie says he has built around 50 new instruments and worked on hundreds of others — throughout not only the region, but some as far away as Japan.

“I wouldn’t think that Augie would do anything but invest in the instrument. It’s the tradition of the church and there’s a reason for that. There’s no other instrument that’ll make as much sound as the pipe organ. There’s no other instrument that will lead a congregation in liturgy and singing of hymns as a pipe organ will,” Nordlie said. 

And it is an investment. To build the same instrument today would cost in excess of a million dollars. According to Nordlie, the initial investment in Augsutana’s pipe organ cost around $250,000, and the first renovation project around $100,000. The most recent project cost nearly $180,000, funded by the Organ Endowment Fund and generous gifts of more than 50 Augustana donors. They include current and former Augustana presidents, professors, organ students, campus pastors and alumni — such as Jane (Torness) Rasmussen ‘72. Rasmussen and her husband, John, are members of the Stavig and Granskou families respectively.  

“We have an attachment to the chapel,” said Jane. “I have strong memories of attending chapel services in the old gym in the late 60s. By the time our sons, Paul ‘03 and Carl ‘06, were at Augustana, the new chapel was deeply embedded in the life of the campus. It’s a beautiful place to congregate, worship and hear music. Having Paul and Carl involved in choirs and campus ministry made our experiences with the chapel extra special.”

The Music Lover

It’s Jane’s mother, Mary Torness, who the Rasmussens wanted their donation to honor. Torness studied music education at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, in the early 40s. When her home congregation in Sisseton, South Dakota, built a new church in the mid 50s, Torness was instrumental in making sure it had a pipe organ.

John recalled, “There were people in the congregation that wanted a Hammond electric organ and that was good enough, but Mary put her foot down.”

And Torness persevered. She helped raise the money for a pipe organ and they report it’s still a wonderful instrument to this day. 

“Mom loved music. She was an excellent pianist and organist, but more than anything she had a deep life-long appreciation for music. As a young girl she kept notebooks of the lyrics to her favorite songs. She never missed an opportunity to attend concerts, operas and musicals. Classical music filled our home from morning to night,” said Jane. “But I think her greatest gift was instilling her love of music in her children and grandchildren, always encouraging them to find the beauty and meaning in music that filled her life.” 

Torness passed away in 2014 at the age of 93. Jane says her mom died peacefully at home — listening to her music.

The Organist and Teacher

Nearly 40 years after the university’s pipe organ was built, it’s also an Augustana alumna who keeps its music in motion. The chapel’s organist has been AU’s organ instructor for two decades. Marilyn Schempp ‘79 says her start with the organ began like many others.

Schempp said, “I think that happens with a lot of organists. ‘If you can play the piano, you can play the organ.’”

But Schempp says she actually majored in oboe and voice as a student at Augustana. After she graduated, she took a job as a church musician. That’s when she began taking lessons from Dr. Mary Helen Schmidt, who was Augustana’s organist at the time. Schempp claims that’s also when she learned how to correctly play the organ. From there, she got her Master’s of Music in Organ Performance.

“Mozart called it the king of instruments and for good reason because you have such a variety of sounds,” said Schempp. “It takes a lot of coordination and focus. I have found that some people just have a natural knack. Sometimes even the good keyboardists have a hard time getting their feet going.”

While the history of the instrument dates back hundreds of years and the instrument is an expensive one to preserve, Schempp says she always has a few students who are interested in playing the pipe organ and even majoring in it. The Hurley, South Dakota native says she is a very active participant in the American Guild of Organists, which holds regular regional and national conventions. 

Schempp said, “We have some young people who are really excited about playing the organ and participating in competitions.”

Their excitement gives Schempp confidence that the organ at Augustana will be around for another 40 years.

“It’s a gift from God to God.” Rosendale said, “We can't wait to hear how this instrument will enhance worship and support congregational singing.”

When the pandemic is behind us, Campus Ministry plans to host an organ concert and rededicate the instrument.

Watch and listen as Jacob Huber '21 plays an excerpt from "Carillon" by Louis Vierne on the newly renovated organ.

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