Sam Szor at home with his grand piano. Mr. Szor is retiring after 39 years as music director of First Congregational Church in the Old West End.
Commitment is as much a part of Sam Szor's character as is his zeal for music.
Toledo's "Mr. Music," as he is widely known, has directed the Toledo Concert Band's popular "Music Under the Stars" program for 55 years, and this Christmas will mark his 50th year directing the Toledo Choral Society's presentation of The Messiah.
Tomorrow, however, Mr. Szor will be ending one of his long-term roles in the community, retiring after 39 years as music director of First Congregational Church on Collingwood Boulevard in the Old West End.
"I was wearing too many hats. It took too much time," he said. "I'm not being asked to leave, I've just been there too long."
"With his dedication and the quality of the music program, and how much he enhanced worship, he has been phenomenal," said Tricia Knight, chairman of the church's music ministry. "How do you replace a legend? We've got a job ahead of us."
Jeanne Arnos, 88, a member of First Congregational for 65 years, said she has enjoyed Mr. Szor's presentations of classical music and hymns.
"He has brought in wonderful programs and he always provided wonderful soloists," Ms. Arnos said. "Every Sunday is a treat. I just appreciated it so much. It's a heritage that we have ... and so many of our young people are ignorant of what really good music is."
Mr. Szor, 77, recently underwent a medical procedure on his spine and said his recovery has been slower than expected.
"But I'm not leaving the church because of that," he said. "I'm really busy with the other things."
His physical condition has not slowed down his speech at all; Mr. Szor still speaks in rapid, teenager-like bursts. Listeners need to pay attention or they'll miss the jokes he slips into the middle of a serious conversation.
Discussing the Toledo churches where he has worked, for example, Mr. Szor said he started at Euclid Methodist on the East Side, then was hired by Broadway Methodist. "It was on Crittenden and Broadway. It was torn down. Not because of me."
Short pause and a chuckle.
"That was quite an experience. A lot of good people. A good church. The minister was incredibly bright. They have disciplines in the United Methodist church," Mr. Szor said. "You're not allowed to drink or smoke or have sex. I don't know how they procreate."
A graduate of Waite High School and the University of Michigan, Mr. Szor said he got his self-discipline from his parents.
His mother and father were both born in the United States while his grandparents were here for work, then moved to Hungary as infants. Both his parents immigrated to Toledo as young adults.
"My mother was very productive," he said. "I never saw mother sit down. My parents worked hard. I think that's where I got my work ethic."
Mr. Szor grew up attending the Hungarian Reformed Church, now Calvin United Church of Christ, on Bakewell Street in East Toledo.
"I learned all my catechism in Hungarian. I learned the Bible in Hungarian. My mother insisted that I did my confirmation at age 12 in Hungarian," he said.
He played clarinet and saxophone as a child, and graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees from Michigan as a classical bassoonist.
After college, he turned down job offers in other cities to work in Toledo.
In 1968, he began working at First Congregational ("The Lord sends me a nice check every two weeks," he said in a 1997 interview.)
The historic Old West End church is famous for its Tiffany stained glass windows, although the building's acoustics and Skinner organ are more important to "Mr. Music."
"I think of windows as windows," he said dismissively, then quickly added: "They're beautiful, and they're artistic."
But when he reflects on his 39 years at First Congregational, he takes particular pride in Music Sunday, an annual concert tradition he started in his first year at the church.
Mr. Szor joyfully reads a list of the Music Sunday presentations, citing such works as Cantata 106 by Bach; Gloria by Vivaldi; Benedicte by Vaughn Wiliams; Requiem in D Minor by Mozart, Requiem by Faure, Te Deum by Rutter, and Mass in G by Schubert.
"This won't be forgotten, because, historically, it's there," he said of the annual performances.
Although he said he is leaving First Congregational because he's too busy, it's also clear that Mr. Szor is not happy with the trend toward modern worship and away from the classics.
"Now it's going to contemporary sounds - clap your hands and lift your hands over your head, which is all right if it's effective for them," Mr. Szor said. "Kids in the Christian Education program, they don't go to symphony concerts anymore; they go to Mud Hens ball games. I don't know what's going to happen."
First Congregational Church, 2315 Collingwood Blvd., will hold an appreciation service for Sam Szor's 39 years as music director from 10 a.m. to noon tomorrow.
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