Unlike pipe organs, Bob Campbell is low maintenance.
When he sings in the choir at Christ Episcopal Church, in Bradenton, he stands in the back so no one will notice him. In the summer, when St. Martha’s Catholic Church calls him to fix a bent pipe, he makes sure he arrives exactly on time and as early as possible.
“Because,” Campbell says, “it would be a shame to air condition a big, old church when no one is inside.”
Campbell, 66, has spent more than half his life fixing and tuning Sarasota church organs. He’s used to working by himself in holy, silent spaces. He’s efficient and sensible, straightforward and polite.
“It’s a good occupation,” Campbell says of the job. “It’s a good feeling to have a problem and to be able to sort it out.”
A former Navy man, Campbell learned the trade when he was stationed in Charleston, S.C. He liked to tinker, and he was good at fixing cars, so when a friend asked if he’d be willing to look at an organ in a tiny Lutheran church, he said, “Sure, why not?”
It was an Austin organ, manufactured by one of the oldest-and-largest, pipe-organ companies in the country. Campbell, who took a year-and-a-half of classes at Florida Southern College, in Lakeland, before joining the U.S. Navy, was well versed in electronics and a natural mechanic. He was perfect for the job.
When he got out of the service seven years later, he decided to pursue the career full-time, and when he returned to Bradenton in the 1980s, he was one of the only mechanics in Sarasota who could service the complicated and old-fashioned instruments.
“Tuning ’em is real easy,” says Campbell, who can name the make and year of almost every organ in Sarasota and Manatee counties. “If you have average hearing, you can tune an organ.”
The majority of his repair work entails replacing old leather parts and repairing pitted magnetic and electrical contacts inside the keyboard. Most of the organs he works on date back farther than 1985 and have mechanical switching.
“If I can convince a church to convert to electrical switching, I will,” Campbell says. “It’s much more reliable, unless there’s lightning. Lightning is a bugaboo for electronics.”
He keeps a daily record of every church he visits in his BlackBerry. The database is long and complicated and includes the addresses and contact information for more than 400 churches up and down the state, including First United Methodist Church, on Pineapple Avenue; St. Boniface Church, on Siesta Key; First Presbyterian Church, on Oak Street; First Baptist Church, on Main Street; and Church of the Redeemer, on Palm Avenue.
Up until 10 years ago, Campbell, who grew up on a dairy farm in East Manatee County, was logging 50,000 miles a year servicing churches from Key West to Pensacola, but these days he works less and mainly sticks to local churches. He’s got an apprentice now, a firefighter from Clearwater, who he hopes will take over the business in the next few years.
“I no longer go around rustling up the bushes for work,” says Campbell, whose favorite organ is in a tiny chapel inside a Naples retirement community.
Ironically, Campbell never learned to play the instrument — not even “Chopsticks.”
“These are mechanic’s hands,” he snickers. “I decided in my life I’m OK with letting other people play.”
DID YOU KNOW?
• Pipe-organ stops control the airflow blowing through the pipes. Pulling out a stop will increase volume, pitch and timbre.
• The expression “pulling out all the stops” stems from the act of pulling out all the stops in a pipe organ.
• Pipe organs used to operate via a system of cumbersome levers running from the keys and pedals up to the pipes. This style of organ has since been revived as a tracker-action-style organ. St. Martha's Catholic Church in downtown Sarasota has one.
• The pipe organ’s continuous supply of wind allows it to sustain notes for as long as a key is held, unlike a piano or harpsichord.
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