After lightning strike, villagers bring back church melodies

—   Photo from Beth Burlingame

The steeple of St. John’s Church had a carillon that played a hymn, comforting Beth Burlingame as her husband died. She and her husband, Mark “Burls” Burlingame, used to listen to the church music from the porch of their home, perched on the hill overlooking Altamont.

ALTAMONT — Last year, as her husband battled cancer, Beth Burlingame said she was “waiting day by day.”

Mark Burlingame, a village funeral director, known to those who loved him — and there were many — as “Burls,” died on Oct. 12, 2015.

“Burls took his last breath as the six o’clock bells played ‘I Surrender All,’” said Mrs. Burlingame.

From the steeple of St. John’s Lutheran Church, built in 1872 on Maple Avenue, the speakers projected the sounds of the hymn written in 1896 by Judson Van DeVenter and set to music by Winfield Weeden: “I surrender all/ All to thee, my blessed Savior/ I surrender all.”

It was a song Mr. Burlingame had loved.

“That for me was an affirmation,” said Mrs. Burlingame.

She had grown up listening to songs coming from the church steeple, like clockwork, at noon and 6 p.m.

“It’s been part of the tradition of Altamont for many decades,” Mrs. Burlingame said. “For those of us who grew up in the village, it was our clock.”

She married her high school sweetheart and they raised their own two children in Altamont, living in the family’s funeral home. Mr. Burlingame devoted 25 years to funeral directing, or as he referred to it, “the call.”

“I’d tell my kids, if you’re not home by the five o’clock fire whistle, you’d better be home by the church bells,” said Mrs. Burlingame.

Hundreds of families who were helped by Mr. Burlingame during times of grief kept in touch with him and he with them, said Robert Luidens, who had been Mr. Burlingame’s pastor at the Altamont Reformed Church where he was an active member for 32 years. “They really developed a relationship and felt he was an understanding friend,” said Luidens. He also noted that more than 700 people came to Mr. Burlingame’s funeral.

In 2007, Mr. Burlingame transitioned into real estate, helping to build CM Fox.

When the Burlingames left the funeral home, they moved to a house overlooking the village. “For us, when we moved out of the funeral home up on the hill, we’d say, ‘Let’s try to get home by the church bells,’” recalled Mrs. Burlingame.

If they made it home by six, they’d sit on their porch and listen to the chimed songs.

Last summer, the songs were silenced. Lightning struck St. John’s steeple in July.

Bringing back a joyful noise

At first, the church thought it would repair the eight-track tape system that had projected songs over the village, said Gregory Zajac, pastor at St. John’s Church. Fred Bergman, a retired electrical engineer and ham radio operator took the components home.

“His verdict: ‘You need a new one,’” said Zajac.

The 1984 carillon had been donated by Anna May Miller in memory of her parents, Carolina and William Hartmann, and her brothers, George and William C. Hartmann. “Sadly, Anna May did not get to enjoy the music herself for very long,” said Zajac. “She died in a traffic accident at the corner of Route 20 and Dunnsville Road shortly after the carillon was installed.”

The original carillon in St. John’s was from 1952. That system had miniature hammers that struck tiny brass rods, said Zajac; the sounds were amplified with speakers. The eight-track tape system, meant to mimic the sound of cast bells, “served us well for 32 years,” he said, “but lately it had been acting finicky and eating tapes. After lightning struck the steeple in early July, it stopped working entirely.”

The church still has a single cast bell in its steeple that is used to call congregants to worship on Sundays, Zajac said, but many villagers approached him after the carillon was struck in July to ask what happened to the music from the steeple.

“It was after the call from Beth Burlingame, and hearing the story of the comfort the carillon music gave to a dying man that obtaining a replacement became a priority,” Zajac said.

Referring to Troy Miller of CM Fox, Mrs. Burlingame said, “When Troy asked me what to do in Burls’s memory, I had just talked to Greg Zajac. Troy jumped on it right away, wanting to bring a joyful noise back to the village, reminding us of God’s presence.”

Although her husband had belonged to the Reformed Church, Mrs. Burlingame said, “He was in all the churches during his years as funeral director and knew all the clergy.”

Zajac said that Mr. Burlingame was one of the first people he met when he came to Altamont. He has been the pastor at St. John’s since February 2006.

Zajac is excited about the new carillon the church hopes to buy — a Schulmerich g5 model. “It’s completely digital with a hard drive like your computer — no more eating tapes,” he said. “It will play over 700 songs.”

Literature from the Pennsylvania-based company says the g5 model plays music from Flemish bells, English bells, traditional cast bells, and basic true cast bells, as well as harp.

The cost of the equipment itself is $11,700, said Zajac. A cherry picker will have to be used to install new speakers in the steeple for “a nicer, purer tone,” he said, bringing the total cost to $13,000.

The equipment that runs the system will be in the church balcony, connected by cable to speakers in the steeple.

Asked why the church would install such a carillon, Zajac gave three reasons. “One,” he said, “it’s a billboard but even better, reminding the community of our presence.

“Two, since the music stopped in July, I’ve had so many people in the village say they miss the religious music.

“Three, it tells time.”

Zajac said of the carillon, “It’s a little gift to the community.”

Mrs. Burlingame said, “I just wanted a reminder of Burls’s love and the friendship in the community. He spent all his adult life here; it’s a place he loved dearly.”

Zajac concluded, “When the new carillon comes in, ‘I Surrender All’ will be selection Number One.’”


“Bells for Burls” will be held on Friday, Sept. 23, from 4 to 7 p.m. at Altamont’s Benjamin M. Crupe Bozenkill Park on Gun Club Road, rain or shine. CM Fox organizers describe the event as a community gathering with music and food to raise $13,000 for the carillon at St. John’s Lutheran Church. Donations may be made to: St. John’s Carillon Fund and mailed to the CM Fox office at 2390 Western Ave., Guilderland, NY 12084.

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