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Expert Awaits Army’s OK On His Offer to Fix Fort Greely Chapel’s Old Pipe Organ – For Free

Tim Ellis/KUAC

The old pipe organ in the chapel at Fort Greely will soon be belting out gospel tunes again, if Army officials approve the post chaplain’s request to allow a pipe-organ expert from Nenana restore the rare 52-year-old instrument.

When Art Thompson fired up the old pipe organ earlier this month, it blared out a single note called a cipher that just wouldn’t go away.

“Speaking of ciphers,” he said as he looked for the source of the problemn. “... And it’s a trumpet, too. That’s not a good one to be stuck.”

Thompson’s a semi-retired broadcast engineer with a 35-year passion for pipe organs. “I’ve always loved pipe organs,” he said. “I’ve worked on and off on them professionally over the last, gosh, almost 35 years.”

He’s excited about the one at the Fort Greely chapel. It’s one of about a half-dozen playable organs statewide. And it’s in pretty good shape.

“There’s a lot of little things that are going to have to be gone through on it,” he said. “From what I understand, it hasn’t played in a number of years.”

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Most of the chapel's 914 pipes are located at the north end of the chapel, in an area just behind the choir loft.

A lot of those little things involve catch up maintenance, like pedalboard adjustment, to stop the pedals from sticking, which is what caused the cipher.

“OK, we should be able to get the full organ sound now that I’ve got that note quieted down. So this is pretty much everything it has,” Thompson said as the worked the keyboard and the old organ responded with a full-throated orchestra-like blast.

As he continued to tinker with the instrument, Thompson says it still has a pretty good sound despite some wear and tear and a bit of water damage it’s suffered over the years.

“When you consider the mechanical complexity of this, of this, it’s really quite amazing that it even works,” he said.

It needs a full tuning, he added, and some of the 916 pipes need attention. But it sounds better than it did when he first sat down at the keyboard back in December.

“It took a while to wake it up, by the way – I think Chaplain Fritts can attest to that,” Thompson said. “When we first got here, hardly anything played.”

That’s Lt. Col. Paul Fritts, the post chaplain. Fritts says he’s asked around, but nobody has been able to tell him how long it’s been since anyone has played the organ.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Lt. Col. Paul Fritts, Fort Greely's chaplain, says he wanted to get the pipe organ up and running so he could use it to encourage congregants to sing more hymns.

Fritts says he’s wanted to get the organ up and running since he arrived on post last summer, to accompany the singing of hymns. He says he’s got a sort of old-school belief in the important role hymns play in church services.

“I can’t say when it was last played,” he said. “It’s probably been many, many years.” 

“I think the hymns of the faith have great messages,” Fritts said. “And I think they, much like pipe organs, have kind of fallen to the fringes, the margins of our worship. And I’m a champion for opening up the hymn books, dusting them off and (for) the church to re-acquaint itself with the hymns of the faith.”

Thompson came to Alaska a few years ago from Portland, Ore., where he worked as organ curator at a small Christian college. He came here to take a job with a Nenana-based Christian radio network. He met Fritts in December, after the chaplain who’d been looking for someone to fix the organ contacted him. So Thompson drove 160 miles to Fort Greely to check it out.

“To have a real acoustic instrument like this is just phenomenal,” Thompson said.  “It’s just really unusual. You find much larger military installations that don’t have anything like this in their chapel.”

And it’s not just any ol’ pipe organ – it’s a Fritts organ, built by Seattle-based organ-maker R. Byard Fritts – no relation to the chaplain. R. Byard Fritts came to Fort Greely in 1966 to install it.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Thompson says he's amazed that the Army got R. Byard Fritts and his son, Paul, to come to the small, isolated Army post in 1966 to install the pipe organ in its chapel. Post Chaplain Paul Fritts says he's not related to the man and son who installed the organ – he says it's just another odd twist in the story of Fort Greely's pipe organ.

“Mind you, this was in the mid-’60s,” Thompson said. “They hauled all this stuff up here. And that was quite a task in and of itself. I mean, the highway wasn’t what it is today… They got all this stuff here, in the middle of nowhere. And organ pipes are rather fragile, actually. They’re made out lead and tin alloy”

Thompson reckons he needs about 60 more hours to get the organ sounding the way it should. That’d be thousands of dollars’ worth of labor. But Thompson is offering to do it free.

“Before my hearing goes and before I can no longer do this,” he said, “I’d like to see what I can do to keep some of these instruments going so that a future generation can take up the torch at some point.”

Fritts, the chaplain, says the Army appreciates Thompson’s offer. And he’d to get to work right away, but they’ve got to wait ’til his the request makes its way the military bureaucracy.

“The Army marches at its own pace,” Fritts said, “but we hope to hear something soon.”

And as the chaplain well knows, only an act of God could speed up that process.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.