In the past 50 years, Mark Johnston can count on one hand the number of times he has been absent from his seat at the organ of the Bunker Hill Baptist Church. He has been playing the 1888 pump organ for the church since 1967, when he was a freshman at Lincoln Academy.
The summer before, in 1966, he was asked to fill in a couple of Sundays. He rode his bike the mile to the church to practice on the 1888 Estey Philharmonic Chapel Organ. Although he had been playing piano since age 8, he had never played the pump organ before.
The organ “was the only instrument the church had when I started, so there was no choice,” Johnston said.
He likened learning to play the pump organ, which has two pedals that have to be pushed with the feet while playing the keys with the hands, to patting one’s head and rubbing one’s stomach at the same time. “It takes a little getting used to,” Johnston said.
“As long as you pedal, it puts air into the bellows, then it runs over the reeds to make the notes,” Johnston said.
“I was just filling in. I agreed to fill in for one or two Sundays and 50 years later, here I am still playing. It was a lesson in leadership. Before (taking on a task), you ask a few qualifying questions and know what you are getting yourself into.”
He has no plans to retire any time soon. “As a kid I said I would do it 50 years, but now it is a labor of love for me. As long as I can sit up and still pump the organ, I will still do it.”
The church holds summer services only, except at Easter, when it holds a sunrise service with the church heated by two wood stoves at the back of the chapel. Although it was not held last December, traditionally the church holds a community hymn sing and Christmas service in mid-December. Johnston is a fixture at the organ for both special services.
Johnson got his start from Ida Brown, of Newcastle, who taught piano to his mother, Gladys, and him. “I kept going and she quit,” Johnston said.
The Philharmonic organ, which was built in Brattleboro, Vt., is original to the church. The organ, which was advanced for its time, was specially designed to be played in churches and is known for its marvelous depth of tone.
The pump organ began being difficult to play, so Johnston began playing another pump organ, donated by the Moody family. He then reverted back to the original organ, but had great difficulty working the pumps, so the church decided to have it restored in the 1980s.
While it was being restored, it was discovered that mice had gotten into the organ and chewed holes in the bellows. “Air was not staying in the bellows and was leaking out. The harder I pumped, the more air leaked out,” Johnston said.
Craig Cowing, of New England Organ Works in Monmouth, did the restoration work in the 1980s. At the time, Cowing wrote that it was “a well-made instrument from one of the best American makers, dating from 1888. Has very good specifications, offering a good variety of sound and more than adequate volume to support congregational singing. It is moderately rare, having Estey’s Philharmonic reeds. Will offer may years of reliable service once restored.”
Unlike a parlor organ, it is designed “more for church use. That is why it has so much sound for its size,” Johnston said.
Johnston made $2 a Sunday his first couple of years as organist. In 1970, he and the kids of the church held a friendly picket to up his wages. “It was all in good fun,” he said. The church elders responded by doubling his wages to $4 a week.
A few years later, Johnston felt guilty about getting paid, so he stopped taking a salary altogether and has been a volunteer organist ever since. “I am happy to do it. I’m hoping I can do it another 25 years,” Johnston said.
Playing the organ jump-started a long career in community service, including the following: director and treasurer of Camp KV Kids and the Elsie & William Viles Foundation; director of MaineGeneral Health and MaineGeneral Retirement Community; member and pianist for the Winthrop United Methodist Church and Augusta Kiwanis Club; race director for Friends of Cobbossee Watershed; advisory board member for Theater at Monmouth, Kennebec Historical Society, and Kennebec Land Trust; member of the Central Maine Striders; and member of the Maine Obsolete Auto League.
In July 1969, at the church’s youth service, Johnston was the organist and preached the sermon.
He started the choir at the church. “We pulled some kids together and had a kids choir, which moved to an adult choir as the kids got older.”
At Johnston’s urging, the church acquired a secondhand piano to accompany the choir. Today, he plays the organ and his wife Judy accompanies him on the piano.
After graduating from Lincoln Academy in 1971, he went to the University of Maine at Orono, majored in math, and took business classes for his electives. He went to work at The Bank of Maine after graduation and stayed with the company for 40 years, serving as president and CEO for 15 years. His first day was on his 22nd birthday and his last day was on his 62nd birthday on June 16, 2015, when he retired.
Johnston’s most embarrassing moment while playing the organ came when he was accompanying a “talented soloist.” She picked out the hymn and they practiced it before church. He always played the final line of the hymn in preparation. When it came time for her to sing, his “eyes went to the opposite page,” and he played the last line of the wrong hymn. “I didn’t know I had a problem but she did. She had to interrupt me. We managed to get through it just fine.”
Johnston chuckled out loud when he recalled a funny story involving an elderly woman with “a great voice.” After singing their second number, the choir left the loft and sat in the pews. The church traditionally leaves the doors open during a service. On this particular day, a neighborhood cat wandered into the church and was unseen by the choir in the pews. Its tail tickled the back of the elderly woman’s legs during the middle of the sermon, and “she let out a high soprano scream.”
He has seen a lot of changes in the church over his 50 years. He has “seen a lot of people come and go,” including the neighbors he grew up with, he said. “There has been a wholesale changeover. In the old days, most neighbors came to church, today they don’t.” In the past, most of the congregation was from Jefferson. Today they are from all over, with choir members traveling from New Harbor and the Augusta area.
One rare Sunday two years ago, Johnston was so ill he was unable to play the organ and had to scramble to find a replacement. He called his sister, Laurie Bouchard, and she agreed to try to play, even though she had never played the pump organ before. “Her husband Jeff pumped the organ while she played the notes. My mother (Gladys) talked about the fact that it shook the whole church.”
A different minister every week contributes to quite a fluctuation in the congregation, as retired ministers draw people from their former churches. “Some ministers sing with the choir and some do not. We roll with whatever we have,” Johnston said.
Johnston said he is always looking for new choir members. With the recent loss of bass Jack Kistler and tenor Bob Antognoni, the men’s section is a little thin. “My only rule is don’t sing in the cracks,” he said, meaning that if there is a rest, members shouldn’t be singing. “We get together at 8 a.m., so we have an hour to pull it together,” Johnston said of choir rehearsal. Anyone that would like to join the choir, please contact Johnston at email@example.com.
Years ago, the church was given an electric organ, but “I have never played it,” Johnston said. “I just love the old pump organ. We could electrify it with a vacuum pump, but I like it the way it is. I’ve never regretted getting started.”