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Archive for Monday, December 24, 2001

Reuter employee’s retirement strikes sentimental note with community

December 24, 2001

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Dan Abrahamson's journey began with a simple request.

"It was back when I was 16 years old," he said. "The organist at church didn't show up for some reason, so the pastor asked me to play because no one else knew how, and he knew I played piano.

Longtime Reuter Organ Company employee Dan Abrahamson is retiring
next week after more than 40 years with the Lawrence company.
Abrahamson was a pipe voicer and made critical adjustments to
completed pipes to ensure correct pitch and tone. Abrahamson was in
his Reuter Organ shop area Friday voicing his final set of pipes
for an organ headed to Florida.

Longtime Reuter Organ Company employee Dan Abrahamson is retiring next week after more than 40 years with the Lawrence company. Abrahamson was a pipe voicer and made critical adjustments to completed pipes to ensure correct pitch and tone. Abrahamson was in his Reuter Organ shop area Friday voicing his final set of pipes for an organ headed to Florida.

"I tried to tell him that playing the piano and playing the organ are not the same thing, but he said, 'Oh, go ahead, you'll do fine.'"

That's when the little bell the one that says, 'Ah, yes, this is what I'd want to do for the rest of my life' went off .

"I wasn't any good," said Abrahamson, now 66. "But I really liked the organ, I thought it was just the coolest thing."

A few years later, Abrahamson landed a job at the Reuter Pipe Organ Co., where he went on to become a "voicer," the person responsible for making sure each pipe strikes the perfect pitch.

Abrahamson has been with Reuter a little over 44 years. He retires today.

Somehow, the word 'retire' doesn't seem quite right. It implies that Abrahamson's days with the company were defined by work.

But is it really work, Abrahamson asks, when it's what he's always wanted to do?

Or, put another way, is it work when an artist paints or a sculptor sculpts? Aren't they doing what they're meant to do? Is that work?

Abrahamson isn't sure. "I vacillate back and forth," he said. "I'm still in good health, I enjoy it here. I could stay until I'm 90, the company wouldn't put me out. But I have things I want to do and places I want to go. I can't be two places at once."

Abrahamson is his craft.

"I can't imagine him doing anything else," said Tom Watgen, 40, an Abrahamson-trained voicer at Reuter. "The organ is just part of him. It's who he is."

Hiring an unknown

Alan Fisher, 79, remembers hiring Abrahamson, then a young man from Minnesota by way of Illinois.

"We didn't know a whole lot about him," Fisher said. "He was a musician and a nice guy, and we had a spot for him. That was about it."

Abrahamson turned out to be a good hire.

"Today, he's considered one of the top if not the top voicer in the United States," Fisher said. "I'm mighty glad I had a hand in hiring him. We were fortunate to have him; I'd say the whole town is fortunate to have him."

Before moving to Lawrence, Abrahamson worked for Wicks Organ Co. and Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co. while attending St. Cloud (Minn.) State Teachers College and, later, Illinois Wesleyan University.

"I knew I didn't want to go back to Wicks and Aeolian-Skinner's main office was in Boston, and, being a Midwesterner, I knew I didn't want to go there. So when I saw an ad for Reuter in a magazine, I wrote them a letter and they wrote me back and said they were interested. Before that, I'd never heard of Reuter," he said.

Newly married, Abrahamson and his wife, Carol, moved to Lawrence in August of 1961. Two years later, they moved to 944 Lawrence Ave., where they still live.

"Back then, we were surrounded by cow pastures," Abrahamson said. "Of course, It's not like that now."

Today, the Abrahamsons have four grown children, seven grandchildren.

Church organist 38 years

Abrahamson spent his first two years on the road, installing and servicing the company's pipe organs.

He was thinking about asking for an in-house assignment or moving on, when Fisher, who was active in the First United Methodist Church choir, asked him to substitute for a departing organist.

"That created an opportunity for me, see," Abrahamson said, revealing the faded remains of a Minnesota accent.

"I said, 'Yeah, I can fill in, but you're going to have to help get me off the road.'"

Fisher moved Abrahamson to the wind chest (air chamber) and bellows department.

"That was Sept. 1, 1963," Abrahamson said. "I've been 'substituting' ever since."

At last count, Abrahamson has played the organ at the First United Methodist Church's early and late-morning services on at least 48 Sundays a year for the past 38 years.

"I can't say enough good things about Dan," said the Rev. Sharon Howell. "One of the real gifts in coming to First United in July of 1999 was knowing that a wonderful organist was in place and is anticipated to remain in place for a number of years."

There's more. Soon after he began "substituting," Abrahamson began refurbishing the church's long-neglected organ.

"It was in terrible shape," he said. "There'd been a leak in the roof, and there was plaster and dust in the pipes. And it had been vandalized some of the pipes were missing."

Today, the organ is in pristine condition. Under Abrahamson's guidance, it's also grown from an initial 44 ranks, or rows, of pipes to 122 ranks. Each rank has 61 pipes, one for every note on the keyboard, making a total of 7,442 pipes for the church organ. No two pipes are alike.

"It's the biggest in Lawrence," Abrahamson said, unable to hold back a smile, the kind that comes with winning a blue ribbon at the county fair.

"In fact, it's the biggest in Kansas."

Tongues define sound

At Reuter, Abrahamson's main job involved honing the strips of tempered brass they're called "tongues" that fit in the bottom of reed pipes on an organ.

The reed pipes are the ones without the notches. Those with notches are the flue pipes.

In a reed pipe, the brass tongue defines the sound. The higher the pitch, the smaller the tongue.

Starting with a 6-inch-by-2-foot sheet of brass, each reed is cut and slightly curled by hand. No machines are used. The smallest tongue is about 1/4-inch long, the biggest reaches 3 or 4 inches.

There's little room for error. A tongue can't be off more than 1/100 of an inch.

"This is all hand-me-down stuff," Abrahamson said, describing the tongue-honing process.

"If you went to an organ shop 500 years ago, you would have seen them doing pretty much the same thing we do here," he said. "The processes haven't changed. Pipe organs can only be built one way."

Abrahamson's records show he's voiced 1,646 ranks of pipes that's 100,406 tongues, each one of them perfect.

"We make a quality product here," he said. "We make it to last 100 years hopefully, a lot longer than that."

No big ego

Robert Vaughan, director of engineering at Reuter, said he's going to miss Abrahamson.

"You don't run across guys like Dan very often," he said. "It's always been interesting to me that he's one of the best there is at what he does, but he doesn't have a big ego," said Vaughan, who's been with Reuter 32 years.

"A lot of people, I think, have big egos to cover up a lack of talent. This guy is just the opposite."

Vaughan said the company tried to have a retirement party for Abrahamson, but he wouldn't allow it.

"He didn't want it on company time," Vaughan said, "not when there's work to be done. So we made it part of our Christmas party."

He added, "He will be missed."

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