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Just a closer walk with thee: A John MacInnes Farewell (1925–1983)

For a Dutchman, being near water is almost a life’s necessity. After selling my house in Hancock, I rented a home on the shores of Portage Lake; just outside of the Houghton city limits. It was a beautiful setting and I truly enjoyed watching nature’s diversity. Each day and night differed from the ones before. The lake was almost a mile wide at that point and seemed to echo life itself. There were times of angry waves pounding the shore seeking to demolish whatever stood in its path; and at other times, when the lake, its anger spent, was at peace with itself; and in the moonlight the tranquility gods smiled.

John MacInnes, the famous coach of the Michigan Tech hockey team, lived just a quarter of a mile down the road. I had met John and his lovely wife, Gerri, at several social functions. He was a friendly man, and even though I was a total hockey neophyte, we soon found a common bond: music.

John was an ardent jazz lover and when he learned that I had been music director for the Lowell Showboat and had worked for a whole week with Louis Armstrong, John’s favorite jazz trumpet player, our bond immediately strengthened. When John found out that I was also a student housing landlord, he asked if I had any apartments available in Houghton. It would be a good deal for me, John assured me. Michigan Tech would oversee the monthly rental fee, and John would “keep an eye on the kids” so that they would respect my property. 

I had recently purchased a former funeral home, next to Trinity Episcopal Church in Houghton, and the remodeling project was almost finished. As a funeral home it had been a beautiful facility with a number of fireplaces in what were the former “visitation” rooms. The remodeling had been a major project but the results were stunning, and it was going to be a good “rental income property.” There were a total of six units in the building and two had already been rented out. John looked at the remaining four units and signed for all four.

During the first week of the fall semester, I had a meeting with all the tenants. I explained the rules and the “damage deposit” that each student paid. At the end of the year that money would be refunded, minus the cost of fixing any potential damage. The students, of course, promised to be respectful of my property. They did have one question: Seeing that they now lived in a former funeral home they thought it would be “cool” if they made a replica of a casket with the name “The Morgue” painted on the outside of the building; and they placed it by the front door. I gave them permission to go ahead, telling them that I thought it was a bit ghoulish but funny.

They had one more question. They wanted to know where the former funeral home’s “Preparation Room” was.  When they learned that it was now the “kitchen” in apartment 3, that kitchen became a “must see” for every visitor to “The Morgue.”

In the meantime, a “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ had been installed in the Student Ice Arena, the home of the Michigan Tech Huskies Hockey team. The organ had first been in a church and then in a private residence in a home on the East Coast. Its owner, a former Michigan Tech graduate had willed the organ to his former alma mater. It had been disassembled and trucked to Michigan Tech where it was stored in the Ice Arena.

The original plan was for one of the Tech students to reassemble the organ, so that it would be used in the arena. When that plan failed to materialize, I, being the new music director for Suomi College, and an organist, was asked to make a recommendation. I advised Tech that there basically were just two choices; either bring it to the dump or contact a reliable organ company; we would have to pay the cost (which would not be cheap) and have that company rebuild the organ and reinstall it in the arena so that it could be used for hockey games as well as other functions.

The decision was made to have the organ rebuilt and installed by a reputable organ company. The work took several months, but ultimately it was completed and the organ was ready for use. There was just one major problem. There was no one to play it! It was a big organ, three keyboards and lots of “bells and whistles.” 

MacInnes lived just down the road from my house. For every “home game” I would pick him up and we’d ride down to the rink together. During the ride we would listen to the broadcast of the “Prairie Home Companion” program on MPR. John especially loved the weekly “Lake Wobegon” stories. Many times we would arrive at the rink before the end of the story. John would insist that we sit in the car to hear the ending.

It would also provide him with an opportunity to ask, “Gerrit, when are you going to play that thing?”

He knew of my fear of heights. He would remind me how much that he wanted to hear me play “that thing” and he would also remind me that the players wanted me to play it. They would tell me that it would make them feel as if they were playing in the Forum in Montreal or the Chicago Stadium; both arenas had huge pipe organs.

It never failed. At every hockey game people would approach me and ask “Gerrit, when are we going to hear you play?”

Playing that big organ would be no problem for me; after all, I had taken lessons on a four keyboard organ when I was in college, and even concertized on one in Europe. The problem was this organ was installed on a platform 50 feet above the mezzanine floor, which made it 75 feet above the goal keeper’s cage! In order to get to the “Organ Room” you had to first go up a slanted 12 foot ladder to reach the steel ladder attached to the wall, and then it was a climb straight up to the organ room! What was the problem? I was the problem. I was afraid of heights. 

I finally relented, gave in to the pressure, and decided I would try to do it!  I told Bob Hauswirth, the Arena manager, that I would give it a try.

He said, “when?”

I told him “the next time I get a snow day off from teaching in Ontonagon, I’ll call you. Get that ladder ready because I will only try it once. If it works, fine. If not, John’s going to have to find someone else, because I don’t intend to die trying to play an organ.”

Five o’clock the next morning the Ontonagon School Superintendent’s Office called. “No school, due to a total snow whiteout!” I reset my alarm for 8 a.m. and went back to sleep. At 8 a.m. I called Bob Hauswirth and told him I was on my way and “Get that ladder ready; remember, it’s a one shot try.

When I arrived at the arena, the slanted ladder was in place. Bob would go up the ladder first and unlock the organ room door. For a moment it occurred to me to ask, “Why would you have a lock on that door? Do you think someone might steal that organ?”

“Never mind, I told myself,” you have other things to think about.

I slowly went up the slanted ladder and then I started my journey, straight up. Bob had reminded me, “Don’t look down!” I stared straight ahead and counted each step. One! Two! Three! Up I went like a zombie. Fifteen! Sixteen! Still climbing. I reached for the next rung. There was no next rung. I had gone too far! Fortunately Bob “talked me down.” I reached the organ room level, stepped across the opening and I was in. Thanks to MacInnes and his prodding, I had actually made it. I entered the organ room and there sat the Mighty Wurlitzer, waiting for me.

The console of the organ was turned so that as I looked over my right shoulder I could see the ice and the goalie’s cage 75 feet below me. I almost threw up! I wished that they would have installed a seat belt! Bob turned a switch and suddenly the organ room made me feel as if I was in the cockpit of a 747, ready for take-off! It takes a lot of wind to fill all those organ pipes! I started to play and as I was playing I began to lose my fears and the music was the best medicine, ever. I played and played, losing track of time, and then Bob tapped me on the shoulder to remind me that the arena was being used for other activities and it was time to “go down.”

Like “Blood Sweat and Tears” from the 70’s sang, “What goes up must come down”. Slowly, very carefully, one rung at a time I went down, and finally reached the mezzanine level again. The waiting custodial staff welcomed me back with a round of applause. It was time for a little “Thank you, Lord”.

Later that day I called my friend John Mac and said, “Thank you my friend, without your encouragement and your belief in me, today’s journey would not have been possible.”

Starting that week I played for 20 minutes or so before and after each game, always ending with my arrangement of Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” a salute to the Copper Country.  

A couple years flew by and things had changed a lot. My friend had been undergoing dialysis treatments for his kidney disease, but it did not seem to help. He was now bedridden.

One evening when I stopped by to see him he looked very frail and he said, “Ah, Gerrit I am glad you’re here. We have to talk about my funeral arrangements.”

He knew that the end was near and I knew my friend well enough to know that this was not a time for optimistic chatter. He was preparing to take that final journey, to play that final game.

I asked “How can I help. What can I do?”

He said, “Play whatever you want before the service, I trust your judgment; but I have one special request. Sometime during the service I want you to do an improvisation on “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” It was a New Orleans Funeral hymn; a jazz tune made famous by Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson and numerous others. It was John’s favorite. All I could do was nod, as tears filled my eyes. John took my hand and said, “Thank you, I know you’ll do good.”

As I sat in the sanctuary of Houghton’s Franklin Street Presbyterian Church waiting to play for my friend’s farewell service, I fondly recalled my times with John, and I whispered softly, “Have a safe journey my friend.”

I don’t know what I played, but I know that the music that flowed from my fingers came from my heart.

“When my feeble life is o’er

Time for me will be no more,

Guide me gently, safely o’er,

To Thy kingdom’s shore,

To Thy shore.”

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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