FCPC ORGANIST A RARE GEM

By LORETTA FULTON

The man behind the newest and perhaps the grandest pipe organ in Abilene doesn’t even consider himself a professional organist.

Try telling that to members and visitors at First Central Presbyterian Church who are graced by the skills and dedication of Larry Wolz, who is entering his 40th year as organist at First Central and 50th as a church organist. As polished as his skills are, Wolz did not major in organ performance in college, but was a voice major and earned a master’s degree in vocal performance.

“It was the degree that fit my talents as I saw them,” Wolz said.

Wolz does have the voice of a vocal performance major, but his voice isn’t  heard as often as his keyboard skills. In fact, his voice is heard so seldomly that people take notice when he sings.

“I consider it a rare treat when he sings with his deep resonant voice,” said First Central’s pastor, Cliff Stewart. “He does not do it often but when he does, it is beautiful and unusual.”

Wolz’ tenure at First Central Presbyterian Church is an anomaly in Abilene, even though he does fit the profile of the “typical” church organist in the United States. Several large churches in Abilene are without a permanent organist, relying on substitutes who sometimes drive great distances to play on Sundays and for special occasions. 

A 2015 survey by the American Guild of Organists revealed that about 60 percent of its 16,000 members were 58 years of age or older. Just 11 percent were younger than 37. And, 58 percent had played at the same religious institution for at least 31 years, while only 14 percent had done so for less than a decade. At age 68, entering his 40th year at First Central Presbyterian and his 50th year as a church organist, Wolz fits neatly into those statistics.

The clergy and members of First Central Presbyterian Church realize that they have a gem in Larry Wolz. A new pipe organ made its debut in early December 2018. It was made possible in part by a gift from an anonymous donor who stipulated that the gift honor Wolz. A perk came with the new organ and the redesign of the sanctuary to accommodate it. Before the remodeling, no one could see Wolz at the organ. 

“It was only when we moved the organ from the pit behind the choir that people ever got to see Larry play,” Stewart, FCPC pastor, said. “We can see not only his hands on the keys, but his expert footwork that is needed to create music on the instrument.”

 

The organ at First Central Presbyterian Church was paid for in part by a donor in honor of longtime organist Larry Wolz. Photos by Loretta Fulton

Wolz’s journey to becoming Abilene’s longest tenured church organist began at First Baptist Church in Odessa. Wolz was born in Odessa Sept. 1, 1951, to Johnny and Lucille Wolz. His dad was a letter carrier and his mom started work in the Ector County Clerk’s office when Larry was a baby, eventually being elected county clerk. Neither parent, nor a brother Jerry, showed musical interests or talents.

“I come from a totally a-musical family,” Wolz said.

The closest he can come–and this is just a “maybe”–was discovered when doing Wolz family genealogy research. He discovered a 16th century German Wolz who was an organist, but he isn’t sure if that Wolz is a descendant. 

Wherever he got it, Larry Wolz definitely got the musical gene from someone. He grew up in First Baptist Church in Odessa listening to Mary Hill Hall play a Hammond organ. He decided that he, too, wanted to learn to play the organ and signed up for piano lessons with Gary Foster, who was Wolz’ junior high school choral director. Hall insisted on two years of piano training before attempting the organ. 

“My senior year in high school, I started organ,” Wolz said.

Hall, who died in 2018, was the first music educator to impact Wolz’ future life. Over the years, as he became an accomplished organist and composer of organ pieces, Wolz dedicated some of his published works to her.

“She was the influence for getting me started in organ,” Wolz said. 

A year after Wolz started taking lessons from Hall, she and her husband moved and Wolz sometimes filled in as organist at First Baptist in Odessa. 

From there, Wolz enrolled at Hardin-Simmons University, where he majored in vocal performance. He later decided he wanted to teach voice in college and enrolled in TCU, where he earned a master’s degree in musicology or music history in 1976. Then, he was off to the University of Cincinnati, where he enrolled in the university’s College-Conservatory of Music to study for a doctorate. In 1978, Wolz got a call from Jack Dean, who at the time was dean of the school of music at Hardin-Simmons, wanting to know if Wolz wanted a job. He said yes.

“I was replacing my voice teacher at Hardin-Simmons,” Wolz recalled.

While teaching at Hardin-Simmons, Wolz finished his doctorate from the University of Cincinnati and received it in 1983. Wolz retired from Hardin-Simmons in 2015 after a 37-year career. When he retired, Wolz was head of the Department of Music History and Literature. Over the years, he worked closely with music librarians to build and enhance the Smith Music Library collections, contributing thousands of items himself. When Wolz retired, the rare books room was named in his honor. 

While a student and professor at Hardin-Simmons, Wolz maintained his playing skills by serving several churches. He began his tenure at First Central Presbyterian in 1981 and became a Presbyterian in 1995. 

With all his achievements, Wolz isn’t finished. He has the new pipe organ that was dedicated to him at his church and he intends to play it for a while longer.

“I would like to make it to 50 years,” he said of his position at First Central Presbyterian. “I can’t imagine life without playing on Sunday.”

ORGAN STUDY AND MEMBERSHIPS
1968-69–Mary Hill Hall, organist/music associate, First Baptist Church, Odessa
1969-70–Ronald Hough, organ professor, Hardin-Simmons University
1970-72–John Campbell, organ professor, HSU
1975-76–Emmet Smith, organ professor, Texas Christian University
1974–Joined American Guild of Organists (AGO), Fort Worth Chapter
1986–Earned AGO Service Playing Certificate
Member, Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and the Church Music Institute

ORGAN STUDY
1968-69–Mary Hill Hall, organist/music associate, First Baptist Church, Odessa
1969-70–Ronald Hough, organ professor, Hardin-Simmons University
1970-72–John Campbell, organ professor, Hardin-Simmons University
1975-76–Emmet Smith, organ professor, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth

ORGAN POSITIONS HELD
1970-73–Student chapel organist, Hardin-Simmons University
1971-72–Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Abilene
1972-73–Southwest Park Baptist Church, Abilene
1975-76–College Avenue Baptist Church, Fort Worth
1977-78–Ninth Street Baptist Church, Cincinnati, Ohio
1978-80–Calvary Baptist Church, Abilene
1981-present–First Central Presbyterian Church, Abilene

PUBLISHED ORGAN WORKS
(Hymn-based arrangements for worship)

“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” Broadman Press, 1979
“More Love to Thee” Broadman 1981
“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” Broadman 1982
“Rejoice, the Lord is King!” Broadman 1983
“O Little Town of Bethlehem, collection of five organ arrangements for the Christmas season. Broadman 1984
“Invocation to the Holy Spirit” Broadman 1994
“Lost in Wonder, Love and Praise, collection of organ introductions, interludes, modulations, and free accompaniments on festive hymns. Harold Flammer Music 1994

FACULTY AND COMMUNITY ACTIVITIES AND HONORS
Dr. Larry Wolz was a professor of music at Hardin-Simmons University for 37 years, retiring in 2015 as head of the Department of Music History and Literature. The rare books room in the music library was named in his honor when he retired. During his tenure, Wolz served as president of the faculty and was chairman of the Rank and Tenure Committee for multiple terms. In 1998, he was awarded the Cullen Professor award for research and creativity in recognition of his publication record of articles in professional journals and magazines and composition publications.
In 2018, the Cultural Affairs Council of Abilene honored Wolz with the Individual Arts Award, recognizing his past work and continuing connection to the arts in downtown Abilene. He continues to support the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature as a volunteer and Advisory Board member. He has served with the Children’s Art and Literacy Festival (CALF) since its inception. Arts boards that Wolz has chaired include the Paramount Performing Arts Series, NCCIL, and the Paramount Theatre. He also has served on the boards of Young Audiences of Abilene and the Center for Contemporary Arts.

2 comments

  • Loretta, what a great article! Larry Wolz is behind the rhythm of First Central Presbyterian Church. I hope folks will come visit to hear him play. Believe me – we do not take him for granted.

    Like

  • What a gift the church has! We have a beautiful organ at First Baptist that sits idly almost every Sunday.

    Like

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