Ephrata man shares lifelong love of music

By on October 24, 2018
Ron Gardiner stands between the piano and organ at Salem Hellers Church. He serves as the church’s director of music and organist, but also plays the piano. He will be directing the Dec. 9 Christmas Cantata. Photo by Rochelle Shenk

Ron Gardiner stands between the piano and organ at Salem Hellers Church. He serves as the church’s director of music and organist, but also plays the piano. He will be directing the Dec. 9 Christmas Cantata. Photo by Rochelle Shenk

Music has been part of Ron Gardiner’s life since he was six years old.

That’s when the 75-year-old Ephrata resident started piano lessons in his hometown of North Kingstown, R.I. The road from there to Ephrata, and his current position as music director and organist at Salem Evangelical Reformed Church, Hellers (known by locals as Salem Hellers Church), has been winding and filled with interesting stops.

He credits his music teacher for her assistance in securing his first job. At 10 years old, he became assistant church organist for what was then Quonset Point Naval Air Station; it was decommissioned in 1974. His job involved playing 10 minutes of hymns on the chimes; his performance was broadcast over the base to announce time for church.

“At the same time I wanted to play in the school band, so I persuaded my parents to let me play the trumpet. The deal was that I still had to take piano and organ lessons, which meant that I was taking three half-hour private lessons each week,” Gardiner explained. “My parents stipulated that I had to practice each instrument a half-hour per day. By the time I finished high school, I wanted to be a band director.”

During the summers of his junior and senior year of high school, Gardiner worked at a resort hotel as a bus boy and a waiter.

“The owner had a big old Hammond organ at the resort,” he recalled. “When he found out I could play, I was hired, along with a high school buddy who played the drums, to play dance music Friday and Saturday evenings. On New Year’s Eve, two other friends — a sax player and a trumpet player — joined us and we became a quartet for the evening.”

After graduating high school, Gardiner attended Oklahoma State University, majoring in trumpet performance and music education in preparation for a career as a band director.

“During my college years, I held a job as a church organist and played gigs with a jazz quartet, so my taste in music is somewhat eclectic,” he said. “To this day I love barbershop style music.”

He taught high school band for six years in Oklahoma after graduating from OSU. Not only did he fulfill his long-held goal of becoming a band director, but he also met his wife of 52 years, Robbie Sue, during his second year of teaching.

After teaching, Gardiner entered the music field and spent the majority of his career working in the piano industry as a sales manager for a variety of companies — most notably, Baldwin Piano. He explained that he worked in several different areas of sales including serving the music education departments of colleges and universities and local dealers.

His career meant relocating several times. He and his family — Robbie Sue, and children: Hal, (now a corporate pilot), Ron Jr. (now a professional cellist and professor at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla.). and Johanna (now an administrative assistant at Elizabethtown College) — moved to Lancaster in 1977 and then to Ephrata in 1996.

“My business career involved extensive travel and for many years,” Gardiner explained. “I was inactive as a church organist. But about the time I was facing retirement, I served as organist for the Hope Church in Akron, and then the First United Methodist of Ephrata. Somehow, Salem Hellers and I connected about 11 years ago and for several years I played the early service in Ephrata followed by the service at Salem Hellers. I had 17 minutes to drive between the two churches, which was a bit tricky at times.”

When the opening for a choir director at Salem Hellers came up, Gardiner was hired as both the music director and organist.

“I found myself conducting the choir, which has always been a love of mine,” he said. “Our choir is small, about 15 members; we invite friends who love to sing but no longer have a choir in their own church, to join us during the Advent and Easter seasons. We call this our cantata choir, and we’ve had as many as 45 singers.”

This year’s Christmas Cantata will be held Sunday, Dec. 9, and rehearsals began Oct. 25. Gardiner said singers are still welcome to join the group. Earlier this year, composer and musician Joel Raney served as guest composer at Salem Hellers.

“We’re keeping the momentum going; the Christmas Cantata will feature Raney’s music. Our pastor, the Rev. Bruce Tully, is creating the narrative for the story to go with the music,” Gardiner explained.

He added that there’s a real knack to finding the music that fits the talent and abilities of the singers.

“Over the 11 years that I have served Salem Hellers, it’s a skill I’m still working on, but I’ve improved over time,” he said.

Perhaps Gardiner’s biggest challenge is dealing with macular degeneration.

“I’m not able to read music as it’s printed. But between a gifted church secretary, and a machine, the printed music can be enlarged so it’s readable for me,” he explained.

Gardiner also shares his love of music in another way — music mission trips. He said Global Missions Project has organized three of them. According to its website, Global Missions Project is an interdenominational mission organization committed to leading Christian musicians in sharing Jesus Christ with the world, encouraging believers, and ministering to people through music. Through this organization Gardiner has traveled to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; and Trinidad in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago.

“Each one of the trips, we did something new and different,” he said. “In Trinidad, we did lots of concerts in schools and one performance was in a former parking garage that had been converted into a homeless shelter. In Cape Town, we performed Christian hymns and worship songs with a big band sound. In Rio we performed as the worship band for a church conference.”

As for retirement, he said he’s still planning to do that one day.

In addition to his position at Salem Hellers, he continues to be active in the piano business. In the last 11 years, he’s been invited to attend meetings in Guangzhou, China at the Pearl River Piano Company, which according to its website is the world’s best-selling piano — sold in over 100 countries worldwide.

“I’ve been there three times in 11 years, and it’s been interesting to see the city evolve in terms of both construction and culture. Now it looks similar to any large Western city,” he said.

He also attends an annual trade show in Anaheim, Calif., in January. Last year his company wanted to have some entertainment for a dealer party and he was asked to arrange something.

“I called a college buddy who had played in our college jazz quartet. He found a bass player and a drummer, and we played the job,” Gardiner said. “We had not played together for over 50 years, but about eight bars into the first tune, it was like we were back in college. I guess you could say that music is in my bones.”

Rochelle Shenk is a correspondent for The Ephrata Review. She welcomes your comments and questions at RAASHENK@aol.com.

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