Our Chapter

Kevin Soodsma, Dean

Grand Rapids Chapter

American Guild of Organists

Executive Council Members

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Kevin Soodsma, Dean 2021

Owen Tellinghuisen, Secretary 2021

Errol Shewman, Treasurer

Barbara Dulmage, Council Member 2020

Jonathan Tuuk, Council Member 2020

Carol McNally, Council Member 2021

Jonathan Bading, Council Member 2021

Members ex officio:

Dennis L. Buteyn, Webmaster & Cipher Editor

Deans of the Grand Rapids Chapter

1938 Harold Tower
1939 Emory L. Gallup
1940 C. Harold Einecke
1941 C. Harold Einecke
1942 C. Harold Einecke
1943 Stanley Baughman
1944 Stanley Baughman
1945 Stanley Baughman
1946 Stanley Baughman
1947 Doris M. James
1948 John Dexter
1949 John Dexter
1950 Henry B. Rose
1951 John Davis Jr.
1952 John Davis Jr.
1953 William Burhenn
1954 Joseph Sullivan
1955 Doris M. James
1956 Doris M. James
1957 Norman Greenwood
1958 Norman Greenwood
1959 Matthew Walkotten
1960 Matthew Walkotten
1961 Matthew Walkotten
1962 Matthew Walkotten
1963 Beverly Howerton
1964 Cyril Barker
1965 Cyril Barker
1966 Cyril Barker
1967 Robert Hieber
1968 Robert Hieber
1969 George Shirley
1970 George Shirley
1971 Larry Biser
1972 Larry Biser
1973 Jonathan Tuuk
1974 Jonathan Tuuk
1975 Evalyn Rikkers
1976 Evalyn Rikkers
1977 John Schultz
1978 John Potter
1979 John Potter
1980 Lee Engstrom
1981 Lee Engstrom
1982 Robert Farr
1983 Beverly Howerton
1984 Leslie Peart
1985 Leslie Peart
1988 Suzanne Tiemstra
1989 Timothy Berlew
1990 John Tiemstra
1991 Leslie Peart
1992 John Hamersma
1993 John Hamersma
1994 Craig Stapert
1995 Craig Stapert
1996 Craig Stapert
1997 William Klimas
1998 William Klimas
1999 Gregory Crowell
2000 Gregory Crowell
2001 Gregory Crowell
2002 Kent Hill
2003 Kent Hill
2004 Janet Hill
2005 Emily Brink
2006 Howard Slenk
2007 Howard Slenk
2008 Howard Slenk
2009 James Metzler
2010 Larry Biser
2011 Larry Biser
2012 Larry Biser
2013 Christopher Dekker
2014 Helen Hofmeister Hawley
2015 Helen Hofmeister Hawley
2016 Peter Kurdziel
2017 Peter Kurdziel
2018 Peter Kurdziel
2019 Kevin Soodsma


History of the American Guild of Organists

The American Guild of Organists (AGO) is the national professional association serving the organ and choral music fields. The Guild serves approximately 20,000 members in 348 chapters throughout the United States, and in Europe, Korea and Argentina.

Founded in 1896 as both an educational and service organization, the Guild seeks to set and maintain high musical standards and to promote understanding and appreciation of all aspects of organ and choral music.

Under the leadership of the National Council, a network of volunteer committees and officials at the regional, district, and local levels directs the activities of the Guild. The AGO National Headquarters is in New York City where a full time staff supports and coordinates publication, administration, and development activities of the organization. For purposes of administration and representation, the Guild is divided into nine geographical regions, and each chapter is assigned to one of them.

A Brief History of the Grand Rapids Chapter of
The American Guild of Organists 

Prepared by Janet Van Dyke
for the  50th Anniversary in 1987

The Western Michigan Chapter of the American Guild of Organists was organized on November 17, 1937, at a luncheon meeting in the Pantlind Hotel. On November 29, the National Council of the American Guild of Organists granted formation of the Chapter and on January 7, 1938, the first Guild meeting was held at Grace Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids.  Thirty-six persons attended the dinner prior to an organ recital given by Walter Blodgett.  Monthly meetings that first year included concerts by the English Choir Boys and John Challis, a Guild Lenten Service, and a Guild picnic.  Thus began a tradition of social and professional association that was to continue for fifty years. 

Harold Tower was the first Dean of the new twenty member chapter.  All new members were required to pay an initiation fee of $2.00, and annual dues of $3.00.  Prices of Guild dinners ranged from $0.45 to $0.60! 

The new chapter launched an ambitious program of organ concerts, vesper services, lectures, choir concerts and festivals, and social events. By 1944, an Artist Concert Series was well established for the purpose of bringing nationally and internationally known organ recitalists to the area.  Numerous musicians performed; some returning for several performances.  A news article in 1950 reported that 1400 people attended Alexander Schreiner’s fifth Grand Rapids concert, held at Fountain Street Church. 

By the late 1940’s the Chapter had become very active in establishing and promoting community involvement in church music. Junior and Senior Choir Festivals were begun in 1949 and continued for more than a decade with wide support.  In 1950, Guild-sponsored student organ recitals and student organ scholarship competitions were established for the benefit of area students.  Beginning in 1959, annual church music conferences were held under the joint sponsorship of the Grand Rapids-Kent Council of Churches and the Chapter. 

The 25th Anniversary Year (1962-1963) was highlighted on December 3, 1962, with a banquet and organ recital played by Charles Peaker at Fountain Street Church.  A special concert honoring the Chapter was given by the Grand Rapids Symphony on February 8, 1963, with Virgil Fox as the guest artist.  Other events followed and in June, 1963, the Chapter concluded the Anniversary Year by hosting the Regional Convention. 

In the 1970’s the Chapter division of the National Organ Playing Competition was begun, numerous workshops covering a wide range of topics led by Chapter members and guest clinicians were introduced, and several noted organ recitalists appeared in concert.  In 1978, the Chapter organized a placement service to better serve are churches and musicians. 

The Chapter was again host for the Regional Convention in June 1985.  Extravagrandza ’85 offered a wide variety of concerts, workshops, and social events and was an artistic and financial success. 

The name was eventually changed from the Western Michigan Chapter to the Grand Rapids Chapter to more clearly identify the geographic location of the membership. 

Over the years, the Guild has continued the tradition of offering outstanding musical events and educational opportunities to both its members and the community.  Our 50th Anniversary Year brings a sense of great accomplishment and pride in our Chapter.  In a letter written in 1967 to the Chapter, the first Dean, Harold Tower, wrote the following, “The first years were a struggle and I am so glad the Guild has developed so well.” We are indebted to him and the countless others who have contributed so much over the past fifty years. 



Presented by Howard Slenk  on November 19, 2012

The year is 1937.  How many of you were already living at that time?  Someone once told me long ago that in a house owned by a woman organist on the corner of Morris and Logan, a group of organists occasionally met for fellowship and to hear each other play.   I have actually been in this room where they supposedly met.   The organ had been dismantled, and the pipes were lying in cardboard boxes on the floor.  Some of the women who might have been in that group are:  Anne van der Heide, Alyce Lantinga, Mrs. Kerstetter, and Mrs. Muller.  I know these names because these fine ladies belonged to the same denomination that I did, and were very interested in improving the state of organ playing and the level of appreciation for organ music.  They were also very sociable and gracious persons, who encouraged a youngster like myself.

The organization of the Western Michigan chapter was taking place at this time. There was an organizational meeting on November 17, 1937 at a luncheon in the Pantlind Hotel.  This meeting would have been spearheaded  by the following  persons.  Paul Calloway was Director of Music at St. Mark’s Church;  Harold Einicke was at Park Church;  Harold Tower  was at Trinity Community Church, having left St. Mark’s after a clash with the new Dean,  Carl Sennema was at First Methodist,  and Vern Stillwell was at Grace Episcopal.  These were big names on the local scene, and I can remember hearing about them when I began taking organ lessons in Holland in 1945, even though some of them had left the Grand Rapids area by that time.

 There was only one AGO chapter in Michigan prior to 1937, based in Detroit.  It was called the Michigan Chapter.   Many of the chapters at that time were the only ones in their state.  There were regular reports of their activities in The Diapason.   In the November issue of 1937 The Michigan Chapter reported  this news:  “After some preliminary discussion, Benjamin Laughton submitted the motion that Dean Halvorsen confer with the Chicago organists relative to the proposed regional convention, and inviting them here.”  At the next meeting, “Mr. Laughton suggested that the Northern and Central Ohio Chapters and the Canadian organists cooperate with us in planning a regional convention.”    As far as I could tell, the regional convention was held in Ohio, sponsored by the two Ohio chapters.

At the national level the big news was that Bernard R. Laberge was announcing a record-breaking tour by Marcel Dupre.  His daughter Marguerite, a pianist, would join him in about three-fourths of his concerts in American cities from September 29 to December 3.   He gave forty-seven concerts in two months and five days.    Another big name that toured that year was Fernando Germani, but he was sponsored by the Hammond Organ Company, and played exclusively on that instrument—five times with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.

The news of the birth of the Western Michigan Chapter of the AGO appeared in the February 1938 issue of The Diapason.   It occurred on January 7 of that year.  The article is reproduced in your handout.  Notice that it took place not in someone’s home, but in the parish house of Grace Episcopal Church.  Some of you will remember that dark building on the northeast corner of Cherry and Lafayette.  Did any of you ever play that organ?  What kind was it?   Was it moved to the new church?   At the meeting, Harold Tower took over as Dean, and Paul Callaway reported.   There was a dinner and an announcement of future programs.  After that the group moved into the church for a lengthy organ recital by Walter Blodgett from Cleveland.

 In February a boy choir from England sang for the group at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, followed by an Evensong sung by the men and boy choir of St. Mark’s .  In April there was a harpsichord recital by the builder John Challis.  This was given in Trinity Hall, which I assume was the parish house of Trinity Methodist Church.  That seems to have been the extent of the program for the first season of our chapter’s existence as far as The Diapason  was concerned.  Several of the large downtown church choirs were involved in big choral festivals in May, which might explain why guild members decided not to have any more meetings that spring.

All this entire year Detroit kept calling itself “The Michigan Chapter.”  But of course, Detroit and Ann Arbor have always harbored a false sense of superiority.

The first meeting of the new season was on October 11, 1938 at Kalamazoo College.  Dinner and a business meeting preceded an organ recital in Stetson chapel by Frieda Op’t Holt, a former student of Henry Overley from Kalamazoo College, and of Palmer Christian at the University of Michigan. There are no more reports of our chapter in that year.   And I did not look farther to see how long Detroit kept calling itself “The Michigan Chapter.”

 Now I’d like to jump to ten years later, the year I first joined the guild as a student member.  I lived in Holland, and hitchhiked into Grand Rapids for the meetings, and then hitch-hiked back home afterwards.   All of the big names that were around in 1938 had left Grand Rapids for other jobs.  Paul Calloway left St. Mark’s for the National Cathedral.  Harold Tower, who was Paul Calloway’s predecessor at St. Mark’s, had moved to take a job in another city.  I remember meeting him in 1950, but I do not remember where he was living and working.

This is what I remember from the six years that I was a student member of our chapter, from 1947 to 1953.    I remember the kindness and support of the four ladies that I mentioned a few moments ago.  I remember  a Mr. Magin who took Harold Einicke’s place at Park Church, and that he was almost blind.  Carl Sennema was at First Methodist and accompanied the Schubert Club, whose yearly concerts filled the Welsh Auditorium, under the baton of Frank Goodwin.   I remember that John Lewis was organist at Fountain Street Church, and I think Robert Noehren was one of his predecessors there.  The following persons were welcomed into our chapter during this period:  Bev Howerton at Fountain Street Church, John Davis at Park Church, Kenneth Jewell at Westminster Presbyterian, Donald Pempin at St. Mark’s, Joe Sullivan at St. Andrew’s, Will Bartholomew at East Congregational .  I remember each of these men very vividly.  This must have been because they talked with me and seemed interested in what I was doing.  This encouraged me to continue attending the meetings.

Our chapter at that time sponsored three big-name organ recitals each season.  I heard the following people play recitals during that period, several of them more than once:  Virgil Fox, E. Power Biggs, Flor Peeters, Arthur Poister, Alexander Schreiner, Fernando Germani, Marilyn Mason, Claire Coci.  and Jeanette Demessieux.  I remember what churches they played in, and even some of the numbers in their programs:  I almost swooned when I heard Virgil Fox play “Come Sweet Death” at Fountain Street.  Jeanne Demessieux played several pedal  pieces at Park, probably in high heels.  Germani played music by Bossi at Westminster Presbyterian, a composer I had never heard of.  I remember Claire Coci, dressed in white tulle, throwing off one of her shoes in the middle of a Bach fugue at Park Church.  At a reception for E. Power Biggs at East Congregational Church, someone said:  “Pierre Cochereau states that he plays the greatest organ in the world in the greatest church in the world.”  Biggs looked at the group and said:  “One hates to say no, doesn’t one?”

These are my memories.  I’m sure some of you have memories from the 1950s or the 1960s.  Let’s hear some of them.