John Connet spent many hours on his own dime repairing the old Barhydt Chapel pipe organ and reassembling it in the Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts in Fairfield, Iowa.
In the dim chambers above the stage in the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center, John Connet positions another pipe and connects a wire. The short tube of tin and lead warbles and then sings out a clear flute-like tone. Connet cocks his head and grins. When he’s done with his work, its voice will join a choir of 1,800 pipes that make up the old Barhydt Chapel organ. Connet was instrumental in saving the organ before the chapel’s demolition a decade ago, and he has spent the last 10 years working toward the moment when the pipes would sing again.
If time bears away all things, as Virgil wrote, then Connet is something of a folk hero, making it his job to carry back what time has stolen. Tall and lanky with short white hair and neat white beard, Connet looks like a trim Santa Claus, complete with sparkling eyes and a quick, hearty laugh. Born in Rhode Island, the son of an engineer, Connet spent most of his life in the Chicago area where he worked for Bell Labs. Marriage brought him to Fairfield in 1996, and he immediately made an impact by setting the hands of the courthouse clock spinning again.
“Things that are dropped by people, I pick them up,” Connet said. “If they’re broken, I try to fix them. Finding something that is wrong, I always try to correct it to improve it. To make it right.“
Minor Repairs to Major Overhaul
Now he’s making the organ right. The 73-year-old moves with an energy and nimbleness that speak to years of competitive whitewater paddling. (Until a year ago, Connet would demonstrate a tandem roll in a canoe to shocked youngsters at a Wisconsin summer camp.) Each day, he clambers up 21 feet of metal rungs at the side of the stage to work on the pipes. What used to be one wall of pipes, Connet split into two sets, putting half of them over each wing of the stage.
Connet listens to another pipe sound. He chuckles as his large hands move a wire across each connection of a circuit board nailed to the wall.
“For me that represents several hundred hours, several hundred wires, several hundred times up and down the ladder,” he says. “Boy, I wish I had a nickel for every time I went up and down that ladder.”
Connet first noticed the organ when he attended concerts at Barhydt Chapel. When the organ played, he could hear odd noises emanating from the console.
“I’d hear these ‘clack-clacks’ and I thought, Oh, that instrument needs some TLC,” he says.
He began doing minor repairs, tracking down leaks in the chests, replacing leather that had been eaten by mice or insects, cleaning the keyboards and footboards that hadn’t seen solvents in decades, and reconnecting errant wires.
“I was basically assigned the local deputy dog to work on the organ,” Connet says.
Then came the news that the chapel, which needed major repairs, would be torn down in order to build a new structure.
Connet suggested putting the organ in storage and offered to do the work. Area businesses donated tissue paper to pad the nearly 2,000 pipes as they were boxed up. And that’s where the organ sat for seven long years until the Convention Center was announced.
From the start, Connet knew that the organ would need to be reconfigured. He worked with the architects to establish the lofts above and on either side of the stage. He obtained blueprints and made sketches. He measured the wooden chests that housed the pipes carefully, drawing on his engineering background and a high school summer job as drafting assistant. He speaks so quickly when he talks about the complex project, it’s hard to keep up with the gears spinning furiously in his head, but he never tires of explaining the intricate, electric-pneumatic, Rube Goldberg contraption that is a pipe organ.
Preserving Objects of Value
Connet’s motivation to restore the organ is multi-layered. Foremost is his natural inquisitiveness and desire to solve problems.
“A big part of John’s personality is that he loves to fix things,” says his wife, Carole Connet. “If there’s any problem, he instantly wants to figure out a way to fix it.”
But it’s more than that. As a child of the Great Depression, Connet grew up saving everything. Every scrap and part got reused. At home, the closets are stuffed with old computers, tools, pieces of wood and metal. An old minivan sits in the driveway waiting for repairs, stuffed to the gills with tools and knick knacks.
“He’s very sentimental about maintaining things from the past, not letting old things disappear,” Carole says. “He likes to hold on to things and try to preserve them.”
From a young age, Connet also participated in choirs, and he’s played both piano and violin. His wife says he has a very acute ear, capable of catching a missed or flat note. That ear seems to connect to a deep, emotional place, too.
“I’ve been to concerts with him where he’s been in tears because the music was so beautiful and so moving,” Carole says. “We did this piece last year [in choir] that was based on the Holocaust experience. And John could barely get through a rehearsal because he would get so emotional.”
Old Instrument Meets Modern Technology
To undo the ravages of time, Connet must push beyond restoring the organ to its original function, however. In order to make the instrument useful to current performances, it also needs to be updated.
“Very early on, having a computer in there was high on my priority list because of the power available to you, and having a more responsive keyboard,” Connet says.
He purchased a set of circuit boards from a Canadian company that still produces organs, and he installed them in the console and up in the chambers. The boards replace the thousands of wires that used to connect each pipe to every key that could play it. He would like to add wireless MIDI, which would allow him to have a wireless keyboard that can move around the theater or be put down in the orchestra pit so the organist can be with the rest of the musicians.
Connet originally put the cost of the installation at $50,000. He’s close to that number now. He pays for the upgrades and parts himself, occasionally getting reimbursed from fund-raising efforts. Still, he’s had less than half what he’s laid out come back to him. But it’s not about the money.
A concert was scheduled for March 30, featuring a pair from the Pittsburg Symphony playing an organ and oboe duet. Connet put in eight-hour days in order to get the organ ready. An early May gala event is in the planning stage.
“There’ve been so many people that have warm memories of the organ in Barhydt Chapel,” he says. “And I’m trying to restore that feeling.”
Time keeps slipping away. Connet works so those moments, while passed, are not lost.
Pipe Organ History and the Barhydt Pipe Organ
The history of pipe organs stretches back to antiquity, but they reached their height in popularity in the Baroque era. Essentially, an organ is a set of keys connected to bellows and a set of pipes. When a key is depressed, wind from the bellows enters the pipe and sounds a note. The bellows were originally operated by hand, but are now powered by electric engines and regulated by a set of pneumatic pipes.
Most organs have three or four keyboards. If the keyboard is played by the hands, it’s called a manual. If it’s played with the feet, it’s called a pedal board.
Pipes are arranged into rows called ranks and the ranks into divisions, which are accessed by one keyboard. Think of each pipe as a person in a choir. The ranks are then groups of sopranos or tenors, and the keyboard is the conductor. Many organs have only three or four ranks. The Barhydt organ has three 61-keyed manuals, one 32-keyed pedal board, and 21 ranks holding 1,800 pipes and reeds.
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