I met Jean Gunnulson 17 years ago. I had just agreed to be a substitute organist at the Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian Church, and we were having our first music planning meeting. Four of us gathered together at 9:00 one morning in the church office – Pastor Dave, Cathy, Jean and myself.
The first thing I learned is that I wasn’t really a substitute. I was considered one of the regular organists. The first item on the agenda was to determine which Sundays Cathy, Jean, and I would each play over the next couple months. That was the easy part. Jean always played the first Sunday of the month which was the only Sunday communion was served. Cathy liked to play about once every 6 weeks. Jean and I divvied up the rest of the Sundays based on our personal schedules.
The next item on the agenda was to select the hymns for the congregation to sing, week by week, for the next couple of months or the upcoming liturgical season, such as Advent and Christmas. For the first Sunday in our planning window, Pastor Dave summarized the scripture readings from the revised common lectionary, and guessed at the theme he was likely to preach on. Jean came prepared with the current year’s edition of Prepare, a multi-denominational book that listed hymns that would be appropriate for each scripture reading. Jean then identified the hymns that the congregation knew and liked (or disliked) from the Prepare lists, and also which ones she had “recorded” on the organ’s midi system. Pastor Dave might suggest a new hymn the congregation could learn, and I watched Cathy and Jean debate the merits of that choice. Eventually, we all agreed upon the four or five hymns needed for a Sunday, and then we moved on to the next Sunday to plan.
In my first meeting, I was amazed at how heated this discussion became, and how long the meeting lasted. By noon, after three hours, we were all ready to go home for lunch, even though we were only half finished planning the hymns. We scheduled a follow-up meeting a couple weeks out to plan the rest of the hymns for that season. Jean may have come across as a bit crotchety in that first meeting, but she certainly was prepared, and it was obvious that she was committed to ensuring that good, appropriate music would be played at each service.
Over the eight years that Jean, Cathy, and I shared the organist role for the church, I grew in my appreciation and love for Jean. She was a person with arthritis that was so severe that playing the organ was becoming almost impossible for her. But she was amazing at learning to adapt. Several years before I became involved, the church had invested in a new Allen digital organ. This organ was equipped with a midi device that enabled Jean to create a data file for each hymn that included an introduction and the correct number of verses. She could “record” and “re-record” the hymn as many times as necessary until it was “perfect” to her standards. If necessary, she could play and record the hymn very slowly, at the pace her arthritic fingers would tolerate. Then she could speed up the tempo when she played it back for the congregation to sing. Over the years, Jean created a library of dozens of 3-1/2 inch floppy disks that included hundreds of hymns.
One of the big challenges that Jean faced during the years that we worked together was the addition of a new hymnal supplement called Sing the Faith. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, there was a huge burst of new style church music charging across the country – contemporary hymns, praise music, and even Christian Rock. Many denominations, including the Presbyterian Church, came out with hymnal supplements to incorporate some of the best of this new music. Pastor Dave really wanted to begin to use some of this music in Cambridge. The church raised money to purchase the hymnal supplement. I had assumed that we would only use songs from the supplement on Sundays that either Cathy or I played. But Jean wasn’t willing to impose that restriction on our hymn selection for any Sunday. She spent many, many hours learning and then creating midi files for many of these new hymns. Some of them even became her new favorites – like “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry.”
Jean really impressed me by her determination to provide organ music for congregational singing as well as preludes, offertories, postludes, and background service music, despite her physical limitations. But she impressed me even more by her commitment to providing quality children’s books for the church children’s library – both in Cambridge where she played a couple Sundays a month, and a Lutheran Church in Madison where she held membership. She was constantly on the lookout for good Christian books at all reading levels. She would scour resale stores in Madison and all the surrounding towns to find good books inexpensively to buy and donate to these church libraries. (Jean had been a teacher earlier in her life.)
But what impressed me most of all about Jean was her commitment to sending boxes and boxes of children’s clothing to Indian reservations in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. She kept track of when each resale shop in the area had special sales for children’s clothing – especially the days when shoppers could fill a whole bag for a dollar or two. She would pick out warm and beautiful clothes to fill bags and bags for the children in these reservations. Then she and her husband David would box them up and ship them to the Indian reservations. Typically, they would spend more money on shipping costs than on the clothes.
Jean’s health had been failing over the past couple years, and she passed away just before Thanksgiving. David asked me to play the piano at the funeral home for her visitation and funeral. He especially wanted me to play “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry.”
David also told me that there’s a bag of children’s clothing sitting on the floor in the corner in their house. He plans to box that up and ship it to the Indian reservation as soon as he can. Jean had shopped for these children as long as she could.
Praise the Lord!
How joyful are those who fear the Lord
and delight in obeying his commands…
They share freely and give generously to those in need.
Their good deeds will be remembered forever.
[Psalm 112:1, 9]
Thanks, Jean, for all you have done, and for being an inspiration to me. Thanks for being one of my heroes.
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