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Published: Monday, 8/2/2004

Love of music is legacy left by longtime organ player


Virginia Keller was there the day Phyllis Bender married her husband, just off to the side, flooding the small church with music and memories that would make her a fixture of their congregation.

Fifty years later, at Mrs. Bender's anniversary celebration in May, Mrs. Keller still was at her beloved organ, serenading those gathered with a variety of after-dinner tunes. Mrs. Bender can't remember which songs were played, but easily recalls a lifelong friendship that mixed rhythm with religion.

The experience was typical for a woman who has given her life to music, friends said. Mrs. Keller, who dazzled worshippers at First St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Oregon and entertained patrons at local supper clubs for nearly 70 years, retired recently as her health deteriorated.

But her legacy is far from forgotten, said fellow churchgoers who will honor her service at the church Sunday at 9 a.m. "It was so wonderful," Mrs. Keller, 87, recalled. "All I know is I played and played and played, and I loved it."

It was that passion - she began with piano at age 9 - that led her to play virtually nonstop at regular church services, weddings, and funerals. The great-grandmother of three worked as a secretary for the Lucas County Board of Education and bookkeeper at the Oregon Banquet Room, but kept music as her favorite pastime.

"I have deeply appreciated her faithfulness," said Beth Huener, the church pastor who met Mrs. Keller during her first service in August, 2002.

Mrs. Keller has worked for 12 ministers since she began playing for the church in 1935.

"She never bragged, she was never one who had to be stroked," said Theresa Berry, a close friend who is helping to organize the celebration. "She never wanted praise or recognition, but had all kinds of talents."

Those talents included piano, a skill she employed when forming her own musical group. "Ginny and the Men of Note," as they called themselves, played for 14 years at the Ritz Supper Club, Bay Shore Supper Club, Guilsh Villa, and Rustic Lodge in Michigan. Mrs. Keller's bandmates would wail on drums, the trumpet, and saxophone, Mrs. Berry said.

When not playing, Mrs. Keller often concocted her famous lemon pies for bake sales and her famous spaghetti sauce for church gatherings. At home, no one was allowed to help - she would cook biscuits, salads, fried chicken, potato salad, and other hot items alone.

She had no favorite songs, friends said, but enjoyed singing the 1949 tune, "I Don't See Me In Your Eyes Anymore" and "I Can't Stop Loving You" from 1948. For reasons unknown, she hated "Amazing Grace," Mrs. Berry said.

After the morning celebration, church members will have a dinner and program at PACE Local 5 Union Hall, 2910 Consaul St., at 12:30 p.m.

"When you have music," Mrs. Berry said, "you have it all your life."

Contact Grant Schulte at: gschulte@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.

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