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Returning to the Copper Country

This is my all-time favorite Tech organ story: I began playing the organ at age five. We were living in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Dad was the pastor in a large Reformed Church. We lived next door to the church, what is known as a “parsonage” (a house owned by the church to house the minister and his family).

We had a lovely “pump organ” in our home. They were very common in the homes of “church people.”

From my very early youth, I loved the sound of the organ. An Uncle who was living with us at the time would put me on his lap, pump the organ, and attempt to show me, with one finger, how to play a simple church song. I caught on quickly and soon began to add more notes to the melody. That developed into making up tunes on my own, and that developed into playing with both hands. All of that is known as “improvising” (making up melodies and harmonizing the melodies). I loved doing it and became quite good at it.

This all occurred long before I actually began to take lessons. Memorization was easy for me, so combining memorization with improvisation made me sound like I was quite accomplished. Just one problem, I couldn’t read one note of printed music. That came much later (a future story).

The art of “improvisation” allows me to sit down without music in front of me, or having music that was memorized, and create musical compositions. I know that this is a rather lengthy explanation; but it is germane to my story.

After I had moved from the U.P. to Hastings, I was asked to come back every spring to Tech and play the organ for their graduation exercise which always was quite impressive. The Processional, at the beginning of the ceremony, took quite a bit of time. There were hundreds of graduates, faculty, dignitaries and special guests. The traditional Processional March, “Pomp and Circumstance,” was quite short; this meant that I had to play it over and over and over! Needless to say, my mind would wander and I would drift off into an improvisation that would “sound” like “Pomp and Circumstance”….. but it wasn’t.

The procession was always led by the dignitaries and was followed by the graduates. The Commencement Address was usually given by a well-known person in industry or government. For the 1989 exercise, the famed Civil Rights icon, Ms. Rosa Louise Parks, was the invited guest speaker. On the day before graduation, as I was “doodling” at the organ, an idea came to me and I knew it would be a perfect thing to do to welcome our honored guest.

The next day, as the procession began, I played the usual “Pomp and Circumstance” and then the music “drifted” into “We Shall Overcome,” the Civil Rights Hymn. It became “a lot of “Pomp,” with a little of “We Shall Overcome.” At the conclusion of the procession, I played “We Shall Overcome” with full organ. The Wurlitzer outdid itself and it became one of my all-time favorite organ memories. Compliments from audience members and graduates told me that it was “the right thing to do.”

After moving to Hastings, I received a call from Tech asking if I would come back and play for the spring commencement exercises. They would pay for a few days at the local Copper Crown Hotel and pay a very nice honorarium. Of course, I accepted the invitation. I looked forward to going back to the U.P. to see friends, to experience the Copper Country again, and especially to see my special friend, The Tech Wurlitzer Organ. So many special parts of my life were connected with the U.P.

It was a place where I reconnected with God and also with my oldest daughter. It was a place where I had cried tears of sorrow, but also tears of joy. A place where I had grown in my musical craft, but also a place where I had sometimes walked through the valleys of despair; but through it all, I grew. I will always look back to my time spent in the U.P. as a time of cleansing and of hope. In years past, the Copper Country was known as producing the purest copper in the world; but in order to reach that purity it had to go through the smelter process. I lived through that process.

Copper Country, Suomi College (now Finlandia University), Trinity Episcopal Church, Michigan Tech, Gwinn, and Ontonagon. You are all part of purifying me, and also making me into a Hockey Organist.

After I had left the U. P. and had taken up residence in Hastings, Minnesota, I received a call from the Minnesota North Stars hockey team. They had heard that I had been the Michigan Tech hockey organist, and that I was now residing in Hastings. They needed one more organist in their roster and asked if I would be interested. They paid fairly well for each game played. They also included free parking at the arena; and, of course, free tickets to all the games.

I was thrilled. It sounded like fun and I accepted. The next day they called me back and told me that the North Stars were flying up to Houghton, Michigan, and that they were playing the Detroit Red Wings in a pre-season scrimmage in the Student Development Complex ice arena.

They asked if I would fly to Houghton on a small regional airliner and then after the game fly back on the team plane. They would pay me the same rate that they paid for an in-town game. What fun!

Of course I said “Yes.”

The next day I flew on a small regional plane out of the Minneapolis airport to Houghton, played the game (hockey) and flew back on the team plane, landing in the Twin Cities late, late at night.

Just another day in the life of a Michigan Tech, Hastings High School, Detroit Red Wings and Minnesota North Stars, hockey organist.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerrit Lamain is a former Copper Country resident who served as a music professor at Suomi College. He was also the organist for the Michigan Tech hockey team before moving on to the Minnesota North Stars.

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