A Tribute to My Father, II

Lyman Edward Pelkey (1937–2018)

My kind father and friend, Lyman Edward Pelkey, passed away peacefully this morning(Tuesday, December 11, 2018) at the ManorCare Nursing Home in Montgomeryville,Pennsylvania. He was 81, having celebrated his last birthday on November 25.  

Back in November 2015, I wrote a lengthy blog in tribute to “My Musical Father.” I’ve reproduced portions of that here but added to it with additional detail. As I noted then, my father had a habit of recording family history and self-reflections in his books and musical scores. I have inherited many of these items, and drew from some of them when writing my 2015tribute. I found a few more annotated items as I unpacked my father’s organ music after our move to Lexington, Kentucky, and I have used them to fill out a few more details.

My father was the third and final child of Stanley C. Pelkey I (April 14, 1901–January1, 1976) and Lyma May (Strong) Pelkey (May 1, 1905–December 5, 2003), and like his parents before him, Lyman spent his early years in the Adirondacks. Lyman attended first through seventh grades (1942–1949) in the town of Burke, NewYork, and he began taking piano lessons in 1945 with Mrs. Sadie Mason, the organist at the Burke Methodist Church. In 1949, Stanley Pelkey moved his family to Massena, New York, where there were more job opportunities in the years immediately after the end of World War II. Lyman completed junior and senior high school in Massena (1949–1955). He studied piano with Mrs. Ivah Church from 1949-1955 and served as the organist at the Massena Methodist Church from February 2, 1953 to theFall of 1955 while still in high school. During his years in college, Lyman regularly served as the summer organist at the Congregational Church in Massena.

Lyman attended Syracuse University from Fall 1955 to Spring 1959. He began as a music major, studying organ with noted performer and composer David N. Johnson (1922–1987), piano with Ada Shinaman Crouse, and theory with Franklin Morris, who had been a pupil of famed composer Paul Hindemith. Lyman also sang tenor in the Chapel Choir under the direction of Arthur Poister (1898–1980), the professor of organ at SU and an eminent American organ pedagogue who had himself been a pupil of Marcel Dupré (1886–1971)in Paris. Following his first year in college, Lyman transferred to the English program and completed the AB in Liberal Arts English in 1959, followed by theMS in English Education in June 1960. Dr. Margaret J. Early (1924–2008), a renowned specialist in the teaching of reading, was Lyman’s graduate advisor. Throughout his later life, Lyman spoke highly of Dr. Early, who served at SyracuseUniversity as both a professor and as associate academic dean before become a department chair within the College of Education at the University of Florida.

Lyman remained in Syracuse after completing his graduate degree, and in Fall 1960, he began his 31-year career as an English teacher in the Syracuse City Schools,first at Porter Junior High on the West Side (1960–1965), and then at GrantJunior High (later Middle School) from 1965 to 1991. A few years after moving to Grant Junior High, Lyman met another young teacher, Alta Jean Foss, whom he began to court. They were married in August 1968. Lyman and Jean reared two children—Fortana May and Stanley (II)—in a lovely old 1930s house designed by the well-known Syracuse architect Ward Wellington Ward on a winding, tree-lined street at the edge of the Eastwood neighborhood, and not far from Grant JuniorHigh. From 1970 to 1975, Lyman and Jean trekked out Trinity United MethodistChurch in Clay, New York, where he served as organist and she served as choir director. It was a relatively long Sunday morning “hike” each week with small children,and by mid-decade they had stepped down from those roles, with Jean taking on the position of Director of Christian Education at the Reformed Church ofSyracuse, which was just around the corner from their home. In November 1979,Lyman returned to regular Sunday-morning work as organist and choir director atSt. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church, a position he held until March 1983.The following January, the family returned to Trinity United Methodist Church, withLyman serving as organist and choir director for the next thirteen years.

For much of the 1980s and early 1990s, Lyman (and Jean) worked part-time at theDewitt branch of the former Howe Jewelers. After retiring from teaching in the summer of 1991, Lyman worked for several retailers in downtown Syracuse, including M. Lemp Jewelers, but he returned to formal musical studies, first under the tutelage of Katherine Pardee, then organist at Syracuse University, and from1994 at the Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, New York. He eventually completed his MDiv degree, graduating on May 13, 2000. By then,Lyman and Jean were already living in Madison, New York, where Lyman was on the pastoral team serving four small United Methodist Churches that formed theLiving Waters Parish. In addition to his preaching responsibilities on Sunday mornings, Lyman often played the organ at two of the churches, while Jean led the small choir at the Madison United Methodist Church. After retiring from theLiving Waters Parish, Lyman continued to serve as a supply pastor and a church organist in Hamilton, New York, and Saint Johnsville, New York, for several more years before fully retiring and moving with Jean to Perkasie, Pennsylvania, to be near daughter Tana’s family. Lyman continued to practice piano and organ for several more years, even as the dementia from which he’d been suffering for some time grew worse. Even after entering the ManorCare Nursing Home, Lyman continued to be play some piano with Jean’s assistance; he continued to sing with her up until his final weeks of life—a testimony to the power of music in a life immersed in music making for over 70 years.

My father was active in the American Guild of Organists for many years, and he continued to nurture his musical interests, as well as those of his children,in part through the musical opportunities made available to the Central NewYork community by Syracuse University. I have very fond memories of attending organ concerts by Will Headlee and ever-popular piano recitals by FrederickMarvin at Syracuse University with my father and my sister while I was in high school. Another especially powerful memory for me is playing in a master class with famed Eastman School of Music organ professor Russell Saunders during a regional conference of the American Guild of Organists held on SyracuseUniversity’s campus. Dad was there with me. I was also grateful that he made the trip to Wilmore, Kentucky, during my sophomore, junior, and senior years of college to hear my annual organ recitals. (Mom was able to join him for my junior and senior recitals.) Dad loved good music, and he loved to laugh. I’ll never forget how he and his mother, Lyma, would get joking and laughing together at the end of dinner when she would stay with us through December, nor how, after Heidi’s and my rehearsal dinner, Dad came late to Heidi’s parents’ house, laughing his way in the door carrying several new reflectors for the drive way since he’d run over (and broken) a few earlier in the day.

He was a good man and a kind man, and he worked hard to take care of his family. From very early in my life, Lyman impressed upon me the value of language, literature,and history. I am profoundly grateful for that, as well as for him helping me with algebra in seventh grade, driving me to those many piano lessons withNancy Ryder Moore, for our fabulous weeks together in England and Scotland in the summer of 1997, and for our many meals and chapel services together at CRDSin the Fall of 1994 when he was first starting seminary and I was first starting my graduate work at the Eastman School of Music. And I was so pleased that both Mom and Dad were able to visit us several times when Heidi, Nate,Maddie, and I returned to Rochester in 2012, including for my convocation address as Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Roberts WesleyanCollege in August 2012, and then for Madison’s performance in a production of The Sound of Music.

I have two very tender memories that I have been thinking about all day today – one of Lyman rocking our Nate as a baby. During my final year in residence at Eastman, Dad would spend an afternoon babysitting Nate so that I could do dissertation research at the library. There’s something just so lovely in that mental picture. Much more recently – there was a lovely hour spent playing Bach organ music together, as duets, on the piano in the living room in Perkasie after Dad could no longer play such hard pieces on his own.

Although his dementia stole my name away from Lyman several years ago, it could not steal away the influence that sweet man has had on my personal and professional life, nor my profound love for him. If there are things I do well as a father, a musician, a teacher, an academic leader, they are grounded in his example.

I love you, Dad. Thank you for your life-long witness to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.