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After 65 years, Tampa church organist to retire


Officially, her arm is the villain. When Margaret McAlister reaches wide right to pull on a stop knob in the upper row of the pipe organ at First Presbyterian Church, her muscles balk.

"It's time," she says, too often now.

She retires next month, at age 88, from a position she took when Harry S. Truman was president. For 65 years, she has been the organist at the downtown Tampa church.

It saddens her to go. Old age aggravates her, leaves her bemoaning $5,200 hearing aids that don't work and grown children who insist on driving her everywhere.

She might be tempted to stay, to keep playing the organ, if not for the slipping attendance at her church's traditional service. She remembers peering over the balcony once and seeing only four people.

"The whole attitude about church has changed," she said.

The earlier, contemporary service rattles the rafters and stuffs the pews but needs no organist. The sermon is the same but those worshippers eat bagels and drink orange juice. McAlister rolls her eyes and dubs it "the tailgate party."

She started playing organ at 13, would have majored in it at the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee (now Florida State University), except that her mother insisted on a marketable skill. So she chose music education.

She met her husband, Jim, while playing at a wedding. He was a Navy veteran attending the University of Tampa, where she taught. They married in 1951, had six children and were together until his death in 1988.

She has seven grandchildren, three great grandchildren, and — at home — three grand pianos, a Yamaha, a Lester and a Chickering from the 1800s.

Until recently, McAlister traveled with fellow musicians to visit the world's great organs, including those in Holland, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, France, Switzerland and Hungary. Her favorite was in the Netherlands, at the Dutch Reformed St. Bavo, where Mozart and Handel played.

Giddily, she recalls the time celebrated composer and concert organist Jean Guillou entertained fellow organists at the Church of St. Eustache in Paris and allowed them to command the great pipes.

"I put my music up and he turned the pages for me," she said. "I just about fell off the bench. I couldn't believe that Jean Guillou was turning pages for me."

She stopped traveling because she doesn't get around as well and must steady herself with a four-toed cane.

She stays sharp mentally by working crossword and jigsaw puzzles.

"I remember things I don't need to remember and don't remember things I should remember," she said jokingly.

Her vision is good enough to pass a driving test. She prefers stick shifts over automatic transmissions and drove a Mazda RX-7 into her 70s until it was swiped from the driveway of her Old Seminole Heights home. When police found it, the motor was gone. That broke her heart.

"I loved that little car," she said.

A streetcar took her to work when this job began.

She isn't sure if she'll keep attending church, because she loathes having to impose on others for rides.

She'll miss the routine of slipping on organ shoes and turning on the lights and peeking into the rear view mirror to see the sanctuary below. She faces the pipes when she plays.

Her favorite of the stops — the parts of the organ that allow passage of pressurized air into pipes — is the diminishing Erzahler, German for "storyteller."

It is quiet, the way others describe her.

For all these years, she has spoken through her fingers, giving all she had to the organ. Not a job, she said, but a calling.

"Her whole life's heart," says choir director Annetta Y. Monroe, a retired voice professor at the University of South Florida.

Next weekend, the choir and others will gather for a retirement concert to honor McAlister.

"Often, you're in a town and there's an organist who's been an organist for a long time," Monroe said. "But Margaret is an organist, really an organist. She is outstanding.

"Not many churches are able to do Handel's Messiah, but we've done Handel's Messiah, both the Christmas portion and the Easter portion — and that's all because Margaret could do it."

She'll leave behind a few anthems she composed, including one called Praise Ye The Lord, based on Psalm 150.

If God is watching, McAlister figures he has noticed her failed notes lately.

He might have seen that her right foot mistook an E for the G flat down on the end.

He'll know, maybe, what she knows.

"It's not that I want to," she said. "I think it's time."

Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or [email protected]

Retirement concert

First Presbyterian Church will present Margaret McAlister's Retirement Organ and Choir Concert at 3 p.m. on Jan. 8. The church is at 412 E Zack St., Tampa.

For more information, go to

.Fast facts

Retirement Organ and Choir Concert

First Presbyterian Church will present Margaret McAlister's Retirement Organ and Choir Concert at 3 p.m. on Jan. 8. The church is at 412 E Zack St., Tampa.

For information, go to

After 65 years, Tampa church organist to retire 12/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 3:38pm]
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