'Low-key' Quay hits high note for his Lord

— Photo by Timothy Van Heest

Wally Quay pauses for a moment for a portrait, taken by Rev. Timothy Van Heest, the minister of the Knox Reformed Church where Quay has played the organ for more than half a century. “Subconsciously, I gave him a halo,” said Van Heest, referring to a glow cast on Quay by a wall sconce. “Amen,” concludes the framed prayer beside Quay, who is retiring as the church organist.

— Photo by Timothy Van Heest

At the keyboard, Wally Quay plays on an Allen organ he helped select, presented in memory of Orpha Gage Quay, his piano teacher.

KNOX — For 52 years — he scarcely missed a single Sunday — Wally Quay has played the organ for worshippers at the church where he was baptized as a baby.

Through all those decades, his music, too, accompanied the greatest joys and greatest sorrows felt by members of his community as he played at weddings and funerals.

He is stepping away from those duties now, and this past weekend went out of town to attend the wedding of his only brother, 18 years his junior. But he’s still mindful there is no one to take his place.

“This is the week that we get together with the Thompson’s Lake church at the Knox town park,” Quay said, so an organist isn’t needed; the singing is a cappella.

A resolution from the classis of the Reformed church recently recognized Quay for having “fulfilled the prayers of his mother and father by dedicating himself to leading the congregation in worship,” doing so “humbly and nobly for the past fifty-two years at the Knox Reformed Church.”

At 71, Quay recalls his Knox upbringing with fondness. “We had a little farm,” he said. His father also worked at the Navy depot.

“His dad was the guy known to fix anything,” said Rev. Timothy Van Heest who has been the church’s pastor for the last seven years. Wally Quay took care of his ailing father until his death several years ago.

The Quays were a religious family. “I don’t think we missed a beat,” Quay said. “We always went to church.”

He remembers his mother as a housewife who was a great cook and took care of elderly people — “anyone that didn’t have a place to go.”

She also played the piano as her own mother, Mary Adams, had before her. When Wally Quay was 7, his mother insisted he take lessons

In his Knox home now, he has the upright that was his mother’s and his grandmother’s. He still plays the old piano, just for pleasure — everything from rock and roll to Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Quay’s parents bought him a white tuxedo when he was a young man, which he wore when he played at weddings and funerals.

He played his first wedding in 1960, as a teenager, at the Knox Reformed Church. He still remembers the wedded couple — Diane Decker and Lloyd Herzog.

I was scared to death,” said Quay. But he didn’t let it show. “Everybody thought I did great.”

Over his time at the church, Quay has played on three different organs for six different pastors — Donald Hull, Peter Berry, Mary Van Andel, Kermit Hogenboom, Daniel Carlson, and Van Heest.

His first five years as church organist, from 1952 to 1957, he played a pump organ that produced sound with foot-pumped bellows. Then a Baldwin organ was purchased, followed by the current Allen organ, which Quay helped select in 1992, presented in memory of Orpha Gage Quay.

It was she who taught him to play the piano. He also took organ lessons from Mildred Stevens Weidman.

Orpha Gage Quay was so fond of her pupil and so impressed with his talent that she offered to send him to music school after he graduated from Berne-Knox. “When I look back now, I wish I had done it,” he said. “My mother left it up to me. I refused. Now, I’ve kicked myself many times.”

Quay, who is retired, had worked for the state’s Thruway Authority, plowing snow in the winter and doing maintenance work, like fixing guardrails, in the warmer weather.

“Gifted, but not flamboyant”

Van Heest describes Quay as “very low-key about his organ playing.” The pastor goes on, “He’s not that artistic, prima donna type. He’s kind of matter-of-fact. He’s very gifted, but not flamboyant.”

What Quay has lent to church services is invaluable, said the pastor. “It’s the other half of the coin,” Van Heest said of the organ music. “Some people think of church as ... the words and preaching. It needs to connect with the other half of what we are as people — more emotive. Music serves that function.”

He noted that, when he visits congregants in nursing homes, often what gives them the most peace is to sing a hymn they have known since they were children. “They’re not looking to me for answers; they take comfort in the song,” said Van Heest.

Of the Sunday worship services at the Knox Reformed Church, Van Heest said, “It begins and ends with Wally.”

Quay would play a prelude for 10 minutes before the service as a greeting. “Then, he’ll play usually a praise hymn, thanking God...It focuses us away from the world we live in and all the day-to-day pressures.”

Van Heest went on, “He plays confidently, enthusiastically, and loudly.” This, he said, encourages people to sing along, since they needn’t worry about their voices standing out.

Then, in the middle of the service, after Van Heest had read scripture and preached, Quay would play an offertory.

“It was off the cuff,” said Quay of the hymns he played for the offertory. “I always picked out what struck me during the sermon.”

The congregation would be quiet, said Van Heest; there was no talking. “Wally is not performing....He plays as he feels inspired...He just accompanies the mood of the congregation.”

Quay would play another hymn at the end of the blessing and then a postlude.

“That’s a celebration for some people because the service is over,” said Van Heest with a chuckle. He added, on a more serious note, “Or because they feel different about the world.”

Van Heest believes there may be no replacement for Quay. An organist would ideally come from the church, he said, since there’s “such a commitment of time...people have roots,” said VanHeest.

He went on, “The consistory has to decide. We’re not sure there are that many organists anymore.”

He also said, “We want Wally to be happy.”

He noted that Quay’s oldest daughter lives in Tennessee and he has grandchildren there he’d like to visit.

“The thing about Wally,” said Van Heest, “is he’s energized by people...His music is in service to that, not to be popular.”

He noted, “Playing the organ is a very solitary profession,” unlike, say, playing in an orchestra with other musicians. “You are the whole thing,” said Van Heest.

Yet, he said, “Wally doesn’t like to get in the spotlight...That’s one of our problems in saying thank-you.”

 “I was never good at speaking,” Quay said, but he expresses himself through music.

“All I can tell you is the words written in the hymn books inspire me more than some of the sermons,” he went on, describing why playing for the church was important to him.

“When you get older, you find you pay more attention to the Bible, you realize the value of life more,” he said, concluding, “Certain songs have more spirituality...This sounds crazy, but a lot of gospel songs lead you to something.”

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