Ken Kavanaugh has been working on the region's pipe organs for decades

Sunday, April 20, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:50 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 30, 2014
As Easter approaches and business heats up, Ken Kavanaugh keeps doing what he's always done — making sure that on Sunday morning or Wednesday night or any other time a worship service gets going, a church is filled with a pleasing sound.

COLUMBIA – Two sets of keys. One for churches in the east and one for churches in the west.

If the pipe organ that needed looking after was in St. Louis or southern Illinois, Ken Kavanaugh would grab one set of keys. If the job was in the opposite direction or close to home in Columbia, he’d grab the other. There were days when he’d have to take both.

Over the years, some churches closed, some jobs dried up, and some keys stopped getting turned. Nowadays, east and west fit mostly on the same ring. The pipe organ business changes, like anything else.

Kavanaugh was never in it to get rich, though. George B. Kavanaugh Pipe Organs and Belfry Service, the company his father built and which he eventually took over, has always been a family operation, and Ken Kavanaugh likes it that way.

If you call the business number, his wife will answer. If you need an organ fixed, Kavanaugh himself will show up. He’s 71 and still out on the road, week after week, navigating around a challenging economy and changing tastes in instrumentation.

If Kavanaugh is uncertain about what the future holds for him and his company, though – who’ll take over when he’s gone, for instance – the present seems clear enough. There’s work to be done.

No job too small

It’s just after 9 a.m. on Ash Wednesday when Kavanaugh’s gold Town & Country minivan pulls up to First Christian Church in Fulton. Kavanaugh opens the trunk and hands his toolbox to his son Jeff, 35, who accompanies him to work on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. On other days Jeff works as a chef at Ruby Tuesday’s.

“One of the privileges of being old,” Kavanaugh says, as Jeff lugs the tools inside.

It’s the first day of Lent and a busy time for Kavanaugh. Most churches want their organs tuned twice a year, once before Thanksgiving and then again before Easter. First Christian has been on Kavanaugh’s rotation since the 1980s.

As soon as they walk into the sanctuary, Kavanaugh checks the thermostat on the wall: 66 degrees. No good. Someone forgot to turn on the heat. Organs are very sensitive to temperature changes, and the room needs to be the same temperature for tuning as it will be during church services. Kavanaugh sets the thermostat to 70 and waits.

Kavanaugh has been around organs practically since birth. His father, George, was an auto mechanics teacher at Hadley Technical High School in St. Louis during the height of the Great Depression.

He started working on pipe organs, as well as clocks and bells, after school and on the weekends as a way to make extra money. Toward the start of World War II, George Kavanaugh lost his teaching job. To pick up the slack, he went around to local churches to ask if their organ or bells needed any work. No job was too small.

“Something Dad always said, ‘Just pick up the jobs no one else wants,’” Ken Kavanaugh likes to say, emphasizing the words slowly as he always does when he quotes his father — which is a lot.

Word soon spread, and George Kavanaugh became known around town. By the time another teaching position opened, he was firmly established in his new business.

Starting early

George Kavanaugh’s three sons, of whom Ken is the youngest, were enlisted in the family trade at an early age. George would place a pencil on each of the organ keys that was sounding an off note.

Whichever boy was assisting at a given time would sit and hold one of those notes until his dad, tuning back in the organ chamber, said to go on to the next one. It could be a tedious process, especially for a young boy.

On at least one occasion, a family story goes, George Kavanaugh emerged from the organ chamber after a number of hours to find that his helper for the day, one of Ken’s brothers, was sitting on a wet bench.

Some 60 years later, on a dry bench, Ken Kavanaugh is at work.

“This one’s got a wiggle to it,” Kavanaugh says, a high-pitched tone filling the sanctuary at First Christian as he holds down a key, sounding two different pipes, on the organ.

The wiggle, or wave, as Kavanaugh calls it at other times, is what an organ tuner is there to eliminate. If two notes are in tune with each other they should produce a smooth, synchronous tone. If one note is off, you can hear the difference, though that difference would most likely be imperceptible in the middle of a church service.

“When we tune we’re actually tuning way more perfect than is really required for the music to sound good,” Kavanaugh says. “But that’s what you do. Hunt all the imperfections you can possibly find and tune them out.”

Of course, in an instrument as complex as an organ, it’s impossible to get everything right.

Ken’s father, George, had a joke about that.

“He always said the pipe organ is the instrument of the church because it’s so full of imperfections … much like the people in the congregation,” Kavanaugh says.

Inside the instrument

Now Jeff Kavanaugh, back in the organ chamber, a cramped cave of seemingly endless metal pipes, calls out for a special tuning tool. Pretty soon the wave disappears, and it’s on to the next note.

This is how it goes for most of the day. Ken Kavanaugh dances along the keys, a look of deep serenity on his face, until he finds an off note. He holds it down. His son fixes it, usually by tapping a tuning slide up or down the outside of a pipe. Few words are necessary.

Jeff Kavanaugh’s been doing this since he was a kid, just as his father did with his father.

Jeff didn’t have that much interest in the job when he was younger, but as he’s gotten older his appreciation has grown. He views each day as a learning experience, and his dad is the teacher.

“It’s not just like going to a factory and sitting down and doing the same job every day,” Jeff Kavanaugh says. “Every day is different.”

“Let’s go down to the C-side first. That’s on your right,” Ken Kavanaugh says from his seat at the console. He’s memorized the exact locations of a good many individual sets of pipes, or ranks, in the organs he works on, an astonishing feat when you consider the size and number of instruments he services.

His clients include the Missouri Theatre and Missouri United Methodist in Columbia, The National Churchill Museum in Fulton, and Grace Episcopal and Faith Lutheran in Jefferson City. Kavanaugh could map out all of these churches’ organ chambers with his eyes closed.

Ask him for the exact number of pipes in any particular organ, though, and he gives the same answer.

“I always say it doesn’t make any difference,” he says. “You have to tune them all.”

Hard to slow down

A white shock of hair rings Ken Kavanaugh’s otherwise bald head. He has unruly gray eyebrows, blue eyes and close-clipped sideburns. He wears blue jeans and a St. Louis Cardinals watch. He likes to record new episodes of "The Bachelor" and "American Idol" the old-fashioned way, on his VCR. He listens to Beach Boys and Elvis Presley cassettes in his car.

When he speaks, he uses his hands a lot, especially if the subject is of a mechanical nature. When talking about playing the organ, he strikes invisible keys in the air.

When discussing the sound coming from a pipe, he moves his hands quickly up and down in excitement. Once he gets going, he’s hard to slow down, like a series of rapidly escalating arpeggios.

“I don’t want to ramble on and on; I can talk about these things for weeks at a time you know,” Kavanaugh said after a lengthy demonstration at the console of the formidable 51-rank pipe organ at the Missouri United Methodist Church in downtown Columbia.

Detailed discussions of pipe lengths. Near-soliloquies on the nuances of different organ stops. Impassioned opinions on the strength and weaknesses of organ sounds from different eras. When he is at the console, his conversational repertoire runs narrow but deep.

The organ at Missouri United Methodist is a particular source of pride for Kavanaugh, who has been working on it since shortly after he moved to Columbia in 1967.

He just walked in the door of the church one day with a business card, and thus began a nearly 50-year relationship that has consisted of countless tunings and refurbishments, including the custom-design and installation of a new console in 1995.

Kavanaugh feels a special responsibility for that organ, and he mentions it when the subject of retirement comes up as if its fate weighs heavily on his mind.

Another job Kavanaugh is immensely proud of – “one of those jobs if you got paid nothing you’d probably still do it,” as he describes it – doesn’t actually involve organs at all.

A special cathedral

In 1978, Kavanaugh’s father, George, was hired by the Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, popularly known as the Old Cathedral in St. Louis, to construct a new clock for its tower, the old one having fallen into disrepair.

George Kavanaugh built the gear works and bell ringers, and Ken built the dials. Now, after a period of 35 years, the Old Cathedral has hired Ken Kavanaugh to redo the dials.

Kavanaugh likes to imagine the millions of people who have walked by the Old Cathedral since 1978, looking up at the tower with no idea of who built “grandfather’s clock,” as his nieces and nephews have always called it.

“They don’t know it, but I do,” he says.

Although Kavanaugh does work on bells and clocks when jobs come up, organs are his main focus. Kavanaugh says they used to send out 75 Christmas cards to customers each year, but that number has dropped below 50.

Part of that is due to church closings, especially in the St. Louis area. The economic downturn of recent years has led to a loss of business as well, causing many churches to be more conservative with their money.

Churches that once were eager to upgrade or expand their organs now settle for tuning and emergency repairs. Kavanaugh’s fee for a full day of tuning or maintenance tops out at around $500, but more elaborate work, such as adding stops, replacing parts or redesigning consoles, can take considerably longer and run into the thousands of dollars.

Other churches simply get tired of their old pipe organs and opt for new models. Some want to adopt a more contemporary style of worship and move away from pipe organs altogether, buying electronic organs capable of making drum and piano sounds.

Voice of an organ

Kavanaugh, who doesn’t deal in new organs, finds more value in holding onto the old. There’s the cost, for one thing. Although he thinks many fine pipe organs are still being made, he hates to see a congregation spend a fortune on a new model when it already has a beautiful seasoned instrument at its disposal. An old organ can often be refurbished for one-third to one-half the cost of buying a new one.

There’s also the sound factor. Kavanaugh is a fan of organs with a Romantic voicing, whose smooth, mellow and “swoony” tones he finds perfect for church services. Tastes changed over time, though, and in recent decades Kavanaugh has noticed the increased popularity of organs with Classical or Baroque voicings.

He finds the brighter, brasher sounds of these instruments more grating and not in keeping with the solemn tone often required in church. As for electronic organs, Kavanaugh notes that they are mass-produced and sound electronic no matter what you do to them.

“My dad always said, ‘You wanna be very very careful that you’re not trading your Stradivarius for a ukulele,” Kavanaugh says.

If demand has changed, the basic operation of the business has stayed largely the same. His wife, Charlene, does the taxes and the paperwork, suggesting upgrades to clients and arranging appointments. If a client wants him to “build” an organ – custom-design and assemble one – Kavanaugh first likes to attend services and take the metaphorical temperature of the congregation.

How vibrant or subdued do worshipers seem during and after the service? How old is the average church member? If church members are on the elderly side, for instance, as a Christian Scientist congregation he once worked with was, it’s safe to assume that “they don’t want to be blown out of (the) building.”

Kavanaugh himself doesn’t attend church too often. He and his wife are members of St. Andrews’s Lutheran Church in Columbia, where Kavanaugh built the organ in 1972. He admits that spending so much time working in churches doesn’t exactly make him eager to rush out to Sunday services.

Perfect attendance isn’t the only way to show devotion, though. All the time he’s lived in Columbia, Kavanaugh has never charged St. Andrew’s for a service call.

For someone who’s spent practically his entire life working on the instruments, it’s ironic to note that Kavanaugh doesn’t know how to play the pipe organ. His father could play fluently, but Kavanaugh gets by with a few snatches of a melody here and there.

A carefully pecked-out distillation of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” seems to be a favorite. Kavanaugh toyed with the idea of learning the organ in earnest at one point many years ago at the urging of his wife, who had taken piano lessons.

“We weren’t very far into that and she said, ‘You know, I think if we want our marriage to survive, this may not be a good idea,’ ” he says.

From father to son

Back at First Christian Church the day is winding down. Father and son are close to tuning every pipe on the organ (somewhere around 1,600, Kavanaugh calculated, after some urging). A few more notes, and it’s finished.

“I think you’re a done deal, Jeff,” Kavanaugh calls to his son, who climbs down from the narrow wooden walkway on the second floor of the organ chamber.

Jeff Kavanaugh, taller and sturdier than his father, is interested in taking over the business some day, but there are some challenges ahead. As a child he was busy with Boy Scouts and sports, so he was never as immersed in the business as his father was at that age.

Jeff also knows he needs more experience with the business end of things. Ken Kavanaugh acknowledges any doubts he has about Jeff’s ability to take over are probably no different than the doubts his father had about his ability to take over.

But today, any concerns about the future of the business remain in the future.

“I don’t want to quit,” he says. “My organs are almost like children to me. I know almost all of their parts by name. I can walk into an organ and say, ‘Hey Dulciana,’ and I know what that means and I know where that’s at. It’s kind of like they’re your friends. You walk into a room, ‘Hi Joe.’”

Kavanaugh’s legs have really been bothering him today. He’s moving slowly. First Christian was the only scheduled job of the day, but then his wife called to say that Campus Lutheran in Columbia needed an emergency service. One of the pedals on their organ was stuck.

He and his son walk out of the sanctuary of First Christian and climb back into the van. Another job waiting up the road, another old friend in need.

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