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Donald M. Gillett

Music man had the right tone to rebuild organs

April 17, 2010|By MARLO BARNHART
  • Don Gillett is seated at the far right in this picture believed to be taken in the 1980s when he served as a trustee with the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Pictured are, front row, from left, Peter Moller Daniels, Mrs. Edward Uhl, Ed Cochran, Richard Wantz, Mrs. George Fisher and Don; and back row, from left, W.L. Guyton, John Burrey, Omer Kaylor Jr., Mrs. Harry Kerstein, Park O. Beaver Jr., Theron Rinehart, Evan Crossley and John Waltersdorf.
Submitted photo,

Editor's note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail publishes "A Life Remembered." This continuing series takes a look back -- through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others -- at a member of the community who died recently. Today's "A Life Remembered" is about Donald M. Gillett, who died April 3 at the age of 90. His obituary was published in the April 5 edition of The Herald-Mail.

Craig Doyle, who now is owner of the Hagerstown Organ Co., said he was a high school senior when he first met Don Gillett in New Jersey.

"I stopped at a Methodist church where an organ was being installed and they put me to work," Craig said.

Soon, both Don and Craig were employed by AEolian-Skinner, a well-known organ company. They first worked together on an organ job at an Episcopal church in Short Hills, N.J.

"Don stayed at my house," Craig said. The two men also were organists, so their common ground was extensive and their friendship grew from that.

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In those early days, Don went all over the country installing organs. When Don and Craig got together, their love of everything organ always was at the forefront.

"I would listen to his work and he would listen to mine," Craig said. "It was because of Don that I came to Hagerstown in 1989."

That was right after the strike at the Moller Organ Co., so it was months before Craig actually could go to work at the Moller plant on Prospect Street.

Longtime organist C. Randall Williams said he first met Don in 1972.

"His reputation preceded him here," Randy said. "It was certainly a boon that he came to Moller. The company developed a new sound under Don."

Randy said one of Don's greatest accomplishments was rebuilding the Skinner organ at the National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C. Don also transformed a number of organs in the Tri-State area over the years.

"I played the organ at National City every summer for 17 years," Randy said. "Playing that organ was like dying and going to heaven."

Randy said Don was well-known for his skilled ear, which enabled him to tonally design and finish organs so successfully.

Clair Johannsen was another local organist who knew and admired Don.

"I benefited from Don's work at Trinity Lutheran Church," Clair said. "He was a great help."

Don retired from Moller in 1991, while Craig stayed on until it closed in 1992. Then, a few months later, Craig and two friends started the Hagerstown Organ Co. Now, Craig is the sole owner with two full-time and two part-time employees.

"Don and I kept in touch, both personally and professionally, since he retired and in fact, we last spoke about four weeks before he died," Craig said.

Leon Cross, one of Craig's employees, worked with Don in Hagerstown, Washington, D.C., and Georgia.

"He was a nice person and very competent," Leon said.

Leon works part time now doing some organ tuning work. The Hagerstown Organ Co. currently is finishing a large job in Roanoke, Va., combining parts of two Moller organs and adding some new dimensions. Another organ installation is under way near Harrisburg, Pa.

Longtime companion Warren Goding said he met Don in Boston more than 40 years ago, when Don was working at AEolian-Skinner.

"He was always on a plane," Warren said. "When Don got a better offer in Hagerstown, we moved because he was always traveling."

Warren said he is having a hard time getting used to the absence of his dear friend.

"I often look around the corner to see if he is there, but he isn't," Warren said.

As Randy noted, Don's responsibility for creating some of the largest and most famous organs in the United States will long be remembered.

"I thought it an interesting coincidence that within hours of Don's passing (the day before Easter), all of the famous pipe organs he created throughout the land would proclaim the Resurrection," Randy said.

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