100-year-old church organist Wanna McAnally just keeps on playing
Wanna McAnally takes her seat at the chapel organ of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church – an organ donated to the church in her honor, by the way – and squints at an open hymnal before her.
“I didn’t bring my glasses,” she protests mildly, as if that might somehow prevent her from playing this distinguished instrument she’s been playing for more than 80 years.
Ten seconds later, the organ rumbles to life, its majestic pipes resonating with a medley of old hymns emanating from the High Point woman’s 100-year-old fingertips. With no warmup, and even in the chilly chapel air – the room remains unheated when no service is taking place – McAnally hits every note.
“They look terrible,” she says as she inspects her wrinkled hands, “but they still play.”
Indeed, they do. And McAnally, with or without her glasses, doesn’t need a hymnbook – she’s got reams of sheet music in her head.
“She’s really quite remarkable,” says the Rev. Al Ward, senior pastor at Wesley Memorial. “She may say, ‘I missed a note,’ but I don’t think anybody would ever find it.”
McAnally, who turns 100 on Thursday, began playing the organ in high school – after taking up the piano at age 9 – and she never quit. She served as the church’s official organist for 34 years – from 1962 until her retirement in 1996 – but she was also the assistant organist for 16 years before that stint and has continued playing for weekly communion services in the chapel since retiring.
That’s an impressive resumé in itself, but it doesn’t even include the countless weddings and funerals she’s performed at. McAnally began playing at weddings when she was a senior at Salem College – circa 1932 – and conservatively estimates she has musically escorted more than 500 brides down the aisle at Wesley Memorial and other local churches.
“I’ve played for two generations – I played for the couple’s wedding and for their children’s weddings,” she says. “And it’s amazing – wherever I go, somebody will come up to me and say, ‘You played for my wedding.’”
McAnally recalls that when she was the church’s assistant organist, church officials asked her three times to become the official organist, but she kept turning them down. A vote among her immediate family – her husband, Charles, and their two children – came up three to one against her taking the job, because her family knew what a huge commitment the job would require.
“I can remember times we were going somewhere, and there would be a funeral,” recalls McAnally’s daughter, Wanna Blanton of High Point. “She never turned anybody down, so she just had to change her plans. She was always on call.”
She ultimately took the job on an interim basis – the official organist had gone on what was to be a one-year mission trip, but never returned to the church – and that interim position lasted 34 years.
Through the years, Charles McAnally – a High Point attorney who is now deceased – apparently grew tired of his wife’s many organ engagements, but a Bible verse he kept in his wallet kept him from asking her to give up music. According to McAnally, the verse encouraged Christians to use the gifts God had given them, and Charles couldn’t help but acknowledge music was her gift.
“He would pull that out and read it sometimes,” she recalls with a chuckle. “I guess he got tired of going to all those weddings and funerals.”
McAnally even missed a choir trip to Carnegie Hall because she had already committed to play at a wedding.
“People would say, ‘Don’t you get tired of playing at weddings? Doesn’t it get to be old hat?’” McAnally says. “And I said, ‘Every time that bride walks down the aisle, I get the biggest thrill. That’s always a happy time for me.’”
Actually, any time she’s playing the organ is a happy time for McAnally.
“Practicing is never a chore for me,” she says. “Even when I’m practicing, I’m just in another world.”
To this day, she still practices a couple of times a week in the chapel, preparing for the Wednesday morning communion services. That says a lot, considering she has to walk up a narrow stairwell of about 15 steps just to get to the chapel’s balcony – where the organ is installed – and she refuses anyone who offers to assist her.
Thursday, on McAnally’s 100th birthday, family and friends will honor her with a birthday celebration at the church.
“I guess I’ll keep playing a little longer,” McAnally says, “but I’ll quit by summer for sure.”
Don’t bet there won’t be an encore, though. That’s the same thing McAnally told church officials last year.
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