Leon Cross quietly began his career at M.P. Moller Inc. organ company after a stint with the U.S. Merchant Marine, never dreaming that he would climb the ranks to head finisher, earning a reputation and legacy as an irreplaceable craftsman.
"With his passing, it's not just the World War II generation, but a generation of craftspeople that came out of that. He was a particularly gifted craftsman in every sense," said son-in-law Steve Fleming of Shippensburg, Pa.
Leon was born and raised in Hagerstown and was a lifetime member of First Christian Church on Potomac Avenue.
After graduating from Hagerstown High School in 1945, Leon went to the recruiting office with a friend to join the Merchant Marine. When he was told he didn't weigh enough, he went home and "ate everything he could" until he reached the minimum weight, daughter Brenda Fleming said.
"Raw egg milkshakes — the doctor said he could bulk up eating those," Steve said.
Leon signed on at the tail end of World War II and worked on ships that were picking up U.S. troops. He was gratified when Merchant Marine members eventually were acknowledged as true WWII veterans, Brenda said.
After about a year of service, Leon returned to Hagerstown and married Doris Churchey. She joined her husband's church and they were married for 51 years before her death in 1998. Brenda was Leon and Doris' only child.
Leon got a job with the M.P. Moller pipe organ working in the company factory on Prospect Street, then traveling to install pipe organs.
"He made more money, but it meant he was on the road, leaving Mother and me home," Brenda said.
Life on the road was no luxury. The men stayed in small "mom and pop" motels, often with minimal heat in the winter and no air conditioning in the summer. They drove to jobs, with no opportunity to return home in between. Leon often was away from home for six to eight weeks at a time, Brenda said.
"She lived with it, but it would have been much nicer if he hadn't been gone so much," Brenda said of her mother.
As time went on, Moller started sending out a separate team to complete the organ installation, then a tuner would do the finishing work, hence the name "finisher," Steve said.
After Leon learned to do the tuning, he was only on the road a week or two, then home in between. Organ tuning required two people — one at the organ console and one in the organ chamber making adjustments.
"The head finisher sees that all the tuning is correct, balances the sounds and ensures the sound of the organ is finished," Steve said. "It's more than tuning. Every pipe has to speak at the same volume and separate ranks of pipes have to work together."
The final payment on the organ wasn't made until the instrument was satisfactorily tuned. Steve said Leon was working with very particular clients, musicians who had in their head what the organ should sound like.
Leon also did "rebuilds" of organs and learned how to revoice a pipe. Pipe organs usually are tuned twice a year in the fall and spring, with the change to cold weather and transition to warmer temperatures.
"You have to have an amazing ear and have to be able to translate what you hear and know what to do with the organ," Steve said.
What also is surprising is that when Leon was in the Merchant Marine, he worked in the boiler room of the ships, in loud, hot spaces. Fortunately, that experience didn't seem to affect his hearing, Steve said.
Leon retired from Moller in 1989, but did work for Hagerstown Organ Co., which was formed after Moller closed, Mark Steiner said. For about three years and up until weeks before his death, Leon had been helping Mark, who owns Steiner-Murphy Organ Co. in Cumberland, Md.
"He was sort of a walking encyclopedia," Mark said. "One of the things that was fascinating to me was that Leon had a photographic memory of everything he'd done. Even if he hadn't seen some in 30, 40 or 50 years, he could describe it in great detail, whether at the job or off the job."
Although they technically were competitors, Mark said Leon was willing to share his "vast knowledge" as a colleague, while many others in the field kept their knowledge closely guarded secrets.
Mark said Leon was a familiar face for more than 50 years in the organ business and his presence was reassuring to organists when there was a problem with their organs.
"The organists were like family," Mark said. "He knew these people well."
Even though Leon "couldn't play a lick" on the organ, he could play chords. He did delight in hearing others play and got to know many of the well-known organists of his time — Virgil Fox, Fred Swann, Dr. Alexander McCurdy and Diane Bish — as well as many church organists.
Brenda said many churches would have a recital to dedicate new and refurbished organs and her father would take her. He would sit near the front of the church and on a few occasions, as he heard the organ being played, would jump up and run out to make a correction during the recital.
Brenda said her father had a large collection of organ music on CDs in his Hagerstown home, where he still was living on his own. He also loved country and western music, as well as gardening, tinkering with cars and NASCAR. Jeff Gordon was his favorite NASCAR driver, which prompted a trip to the newly opened NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., for Leon's birthday last year.
Leon's pride was the Moller organ at First Christian Church, which he personally had tended over the years. He had one last project that he wanted to do on the organ and had put it off until Brenda suggested it might be time to get it started.
Leon's dining room table served as a makeshift workshop as he worked on the re-leathering project. The organ work was not completed before Leon's death, but Mark promised he would finish the job, receiving detailed instructions from Leon.
Mark said Brenda wouldn't have been happy to know her father got out of his wheelchair about three weeks ago and climbed the ladder to check on Mark's work on the First Christian organ.
"I knew he was coming up the ladder to see what I was doing," Mark said. "He said he wouldn't live to see the project done. This was his baby, his own church."
About 12 years ago, Leon was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease that weakens the muscles. The medications he took "toned down his immune system" so it wouldn't keep attacking his body, Brenda said.
As a result, when Leon was diagnosed with skin cancer in the summer of 2010, his immune system wasn't in the best position to fight the cancer, despite treatment. He had a heart attack this summer, then ended up with pneumonia and began having breathing problems.
Brenda thought her father had more time left, but they underestimated how rapidly the cancer cells were multiplying. He didn't leave without making his final wishes known, though.
"He made it abundantly clear to me that his funeral service was to be in church so he could hear his organ one more time," Brenda said.
The congregation was going to surprise Leon with an organ recital in his honor on Sunday, Nov. 27, but now the recital by Dr. Wayne Wold will be a memorial recital.
"He was more than a handyman. He was a craftsman," Steve said. "There are very few people in the world that could do what Leon did."