The keys of life
COLERIDGE — Julie Stone emerges through her music no matter what has been going on with life around her.
Playing the organ for happy events or to help calm people experiencing the worst of life, Stone has played the notes and formed the songs that made a difference at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Coleridge.
Her music has also helped her through some difficult times in her own life, including breast cancer.
“The first Sunday I played was Oct. 21, 1989. I remember the date well because my husband’s grandmother passed away two days later on the 23rd,’’ Stone said. “I was 30 years old when I began playing at our church. I started taking lessons when I was 14. I’m 60 now so I’ve played at our church half of my life.”
Although accomplished at the organ, Stone also plays the piano. She played the clarinet in junior high and high school in her hometown of Laurel.
“I learned to play the organ from Suzy Wacker, my neighbor, growing up north of Laurel. I first took piano lessons from Marian Mallatt in Laurel, starting in 1966 when I turned seven,’’ she said. ‘’I loved playing the piano, but was so nervous at my lessons. I suffered from a lot of anxiety and wasn’t fond of the recitals every year. After eighth grade, I began taking organ and piano lessons from Wacker, alternating piano and organ every week. I continued taking lessons until I graduated in 1977 from Laurel-Concord School. I also took a semester of piano at Wayne State College.”
Stone learned some aspects of the organ at Wayne State College in the 1990s at an organ workshop.
“Honestly, playing the piano was my favorite, but my Mom thought my sister and I should take organ lessons, too. We had a small Kimball organ at home that was fun to play, but I loved playing the piano and singing much more,’’ she recalls. “Growing up in the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Laurel, I played the hymns on the pipe organ for Bible School in the summers.”
After marriage in 1982 to Ron Stone, Coleridge, she joined the Immanuel Lutheran Church there.
In 1989, Shirley Anderson, one of the organists in church, was unable to continue to play because of her worsening multiple sclerosis. Anderson told Stone she would need to start playing.
“I thought there was no way I would be able to do that. I hadn’t played for so long,’’ she said. “I was playing the piano for our church choir at times, but I really loved singing soprano instead of playing. I was surprised how quickly playing the organ came back to me and also that I could play the pedals with both feet. I didn’t even remember learning to play with both feet.”
A few other players emerged in Stone’s life including long time organist, Janice Wilkerson, retiring around 1988 and at that time, Val Ebberson began playing. Ebberson and Stone continued to alternate playing until Ebberson retired in 2015.
“Since then I’ve played almost every Sunday,’’ she said. Others who have played with her include Ebberson who started in 1988 and retired in 2015; and Sherie Lundahl, Laurel, who plays the piano for Saturday evening services and fills in when she can. If she can’t play the piano on those days, there is a digital organ.
Stone plays a Sovereign by Seville, electronic organ (1976).
“I really wish we still had a pipe organ but it was replaced in the ‘50s with an electric organ and this one was purchased in 1977, I believe,’’ she said. Originally, the organ was in the front of the church but when the church was expanded to the east, they moved it to the balcony.
The electronic organ was purchased in 1977.
Through her 30 years of experience, she has noticed and admired others.
“I have always admired anyone who plays well. As musicians, we tend to beat ourselves up if we hit the wrong notes,’’ she said. ‘’I notice others making mistakes when I hear them play, but know I make plenty of them all the time. Sometimes it’s hard to keep the brain, the eyes, the hands and feet all coordinated. I admire my son, Jeremy, who has written a lot of music, except he doesn’t write any of it down … they are all stored in his mind. I can’t imagine that, as I don’t memorize music well or compose music. I can sight read easily and don’t tend to practice before worship, except for funerals, weddings and special services.”
She feared sickness would cause her to lose her ability and desire to play the organ, but that didn’t happen.
“I can’t imagine not playing and a year ago I was afraid eventually I would be unable to play. In December 2017, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.’’ she said. “I had five months of chemotherapy in Sioux Falls, surgery following that, and then daily radiation in Yankton for a month, finally being finished with treatments at the end of September 2018. During my chemotherapy, I only missed a few times of playing the organ. There was only one time I felt too sick to play. In August, though, I started getting neuropathy in my feet and some in my hands, which I knew I could get from the chemotherapy. This hit me very hard mentally. I worried constantly that I had the start of a hereditary neuro-muscular disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth which possibly ran in our family. I was devastated thinking I had this at around the same time my grandmother started getting it.”
She took some time off and then came back strong. She credits the music with helping her get life back in order.
‘’I took a few weeks off from playing when my depression and anxiety were getting me down. Later, I was assured by a specialist that I didn’t have CMT and that turned around my depression. Thinking back to a year ago when I was down mentally, I know playing for worship was very fulfilling, knowing that I could still play the foot pedals even if my feet were a bit numb and cramping,’’ she said.
“I was able to have two months of water therapy and continued to work out in the pool two to three times a week in Laurel. I credit that with helping me gain back muscle I lost when the neuropathy set in. My vision has never been great, having had several eye surgeries. Since the cancer diagnosis it has gotten worse because of dryness from the chemo and other medications I had to take. There are times when I don’t see very well to play but muddled through. I am so thankful to still be able to play the organ and know how much my playing is appreciated by our church members.
When asked about favorite songs, she says Canon in D is one that she considers a favorite.
She also loves a beautiful piece called, ‘’Lord of Sea and Sky.’’
“We have strong singers in the congregation and I love to hear them sing that song,’’ she said. “I love to sing.”
“It has been a few years since I’ve played at a wedding, and they always make me very nervous. The most memorable wedding I played for was my sister Amy and Gary’s wedding in 1995 at our home church, Immanuel Lutheran, Laurel. I loved getting to play the pipe organ there. I also sang for their wedding.”
At one time, Stone said she bought a church organ from Winside and had it in her home.
“I gave piano lessons for five years. At one time, I had 25 students. I decided to give it up when my kids were getting busier with school activities,’’ she said. “I was accompanist at our school in Coleridge for many years, starting in 1990, until my kids graduated. I always enjoyed getting to know the kids. I accompanied the elementary for their spring concerts, the junior and senior high choruses and all the students’ band and vocal solos at contests.”
Stone and her husband, Ron, have been married 37 years and live southeast of Coleridge.
They have two children: daughter, Holly Thiele is married to Steven, and they have two children and live near Clearwater. Stone’s son Jeremy, is a cardiologist at UNMC, Omaha.