Our Neighbors.... Marge StillwellMarge Stillwell, long-time organist at the Cloquet Presbyterian Church, had music in her soul long before she ever knew it.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Marge Stillwell, long-time organist at the Cloquet Presbyterian Church, had music in her soul long before she ever knew it.
As a young child, she used to watch her older sister practice her piano lesson. When her sister got done and walked away, young Marge would step up to the piano and play the lesson herself.
“By watching her, I was actually learning to read the music,” explained Stillwell. “After about three years of that, my mother decided I’d better have lessons, too!”
Stillwell grew up in Blackduck, north of Bemidji, where her dad worked for the power company and her mother taught school and played the piano by ear.
“Music was important to her, so I was exposed to music from the time I was little,” said Stillwell. “I loved playing the piano because I had a piano teacher who connected with me. We were best friends all through life, even when she was in the nursing home. She tried to get me to do the scales and all the boring things, and I just wouldn’t do it, so she let me get by with it. In a sense, it was a good thing because I still love music, but in a sense it wasn’t good because now I know how much I’ve lacked by not having to do the scales and exercises. Although I can play the piano, I don’t consider myself a really good pianist because I know I’m lacking in some of these things.”
Stillwell confessed she used to be so nervous about playing in recitals her hands would actually shake. She recalls one piano recital when she was in high school when she had four pieces to play.
“I didn’t realize that my teacher thought I was going to do them all from memory,” she said. “Memorizing wasn’t my strong suit, and there was one piece that I had not completely memorized. She told me, ‘If you don’t play it at the recital, then you’ll explain to the audience why you’re unable to play it.’ I was just furious and thought I’d really show her when I wouldn’t be able to do it. But I dreamt about that piece all night – and memorized it in my sleep! As it turned out, I was the only one who played all my pieces completely from memory without any problems.”
Stillwell said she loved all the popular music of the day, which was primarily Big Band music.
“I also learned to like the classics,” she added, “and my mom and dad liked the Strauss waltzes and things like that, so I’d play those for hours. We grew up dancing, listening to music and just having a good time with it.”
After Stillwell was older, her mother joined an old-time band that played for dances, anniversaries and other special occasions. One Sunday, as Marge was playing piano at church, her mother and the band had been invited to play at a music competition in a little bar north of Blackduck.
“I remember thinking, ‘Here I am, playing for church, and my mother’s playing in a bar!’” laughed Stillwell.
When Stillwell was still quite young, her piano teacher (and also the church organist) had her play for Sunday School, and hymns became a regular part of her lessons. All through school, Stillwell played for every singing group or soloist who performed.
When Stillwell was in fifth grade, she also started playing the drum.
“While other drummers used practice pads at home,” she grinned, “I’d always practice on an actual snare drum. I’m sure the neighborhood loved it!”
When Stillwell was in high school, a teacher at the school taught a music theory course, and Stillwell was hooked.
“I absolutely loved it,” she said. “I discovered that music is very mathematical, and it just hit home with me. I still love music theory to this day.”
From that time on, Stillwell was convinced that music was what she wanted to do for a living.
At the time she graduated in 1949, however, her mother questioned what she would ever do with a career in music.
“I had a scholarship to pay my way through the two-year elementary course at Bemidji,” said Stillwell, “so my mom said, ‘Be a teacher!’ I didn’t want to be a teacher, but I did go and didn’t like it – except for the music.”
She never went back the second year, however, because she got married and moved to Cloquet in 1950. She had never been to Cloquet before and didn’t meet many people at first. She joined the Presbyterian Church, however, and often walked to church.
“I remember going one Christmas Eve, sitting in the balcony and just loving the service, loving the organ – and thinking, ‘I’m so glad I’m not the organist!’ I don’t know where that thought came from, but it just sounded like so much work. By the next year, however, I was at the keyboard of that same organ and found myself thinking, ‘What happened?’”
It turned out the minister, Dave Hancock, came to her and asked if she’d be willing to learn how to play the organ. He said the church would be willing to pay for her lessons and her music and pay her a salary, so she said she would do it. Former organist Mae Olson offered to teach her a little about the organ to get her started, and then she pretty much learned as she went. The first time she sat down at the organ, she said it was “just completely overwhelming!”
“I was scared to death,” she confessed. “Thank heavens I could sight read!”
She was thrilled when she found she was going to be working with choir director Don Schroeder.
“You don’t work with Don Schroeder without working,” she related. “He was so inspiring to me that I just had to go on.”
One of the choir members, who had studied music at the University of Missouri, began teaching Stillwell organ lessons. After he moved away, she decided she wanted to continue to study organ, so she got in touch with Lucille Webb at the University of Wisconsin Superior and began studying with her.
“Lucille had studied in France and had a specific method of teaching, so I had to start all over again,” said Stillwell. “That was definitely the way to play the organ. She was the finest organ teacher I’ve ever met.”
Following a divorce, Stillwell decided to go back to school and finish her education at the age of 35. By that time, she had two boys of her own, so she thought she might be better equipped to go into teaching, so she went to the University of Minnesota Duluth and took elementary education with a minor in music, utilizing the organ as her primary instrument.
After she completed her degree, she graduated at a time when teachers were being laid off, so she worked at miscellaneous jobs before being hired in the Carlton County welfare office, where she worked for 18 years.
In the meantime, she married a local man named Ray Pellerin, and frequently filled in as organist at Holy Family Church on the Fond du Lac Reservation. At one point, she was also asked if she would help out playing in the pit orchestra with some of the Cloquet High School musicals, which she enjoyed very much.
“I like most kinds of music – anything that’s well done – and those plays were great,” she said.
Following Ray’s death from cancer, she later married current husband Harris Stillwell in 1990.
“I met him through playing cards. He said I kept taking all his money, so he had to marry me to get it back!” she laughed.
She decided to retire from her job with the county at that time, as well as from playing organ at the Presbyterian church. She went to church at Zion Lutheran Church, where Harris was a member, and played organ there once a month as well as filling in as needed. After five years, the organist at the Presbyterian Church quit, so she reapplied for her old job there and got it and has continued to play pipe organ there ever since.
Stillwell admits with a grin that she’s had some “incidents” along the way that have occasionally presented a challenge, such as the time one of the pipes got stuck open when she was playing for a wedding at church. Another time, after Cloquet physician and Presbyterian church member Byron Backus teased Stillwell about something, she jestingly promised to get even with him.
“Byron was singing a solo in a cantata,” Stillwell related, “and when it came to his solo part, a pipe in the organ stuck open. He kept right on singing, but he later said he didn’t expect me to get even in quite that way!”
Stillwell has also performed various organ recitals along the way, including for the Presbyterian church’s 125th anniversary, for which Dr. Justin Reuben, who teaches composition and organ at UMD, wrote a piece based on the 125th Psalm.
“And just about a week ago,” said Stillwell, “I got a folder in the mail, and it was a piece of music from Dr. Reuben. He said he felt inspired to write something for our choir and for me, so he wrote something based on an Advent carol, ‘Savior of the Nations, Come,’ as a gift to the church.”
Stillwell has been playing organ in church for a total of 55 years now – and she hopes to continue to do so for some time to come.
“I’d like to play as long as I can – and hope I have sense enough to quit before I sound too bad!” she smiled.
She grew reflective, however, as she mused over what music has meant to her over the course of a lifetime.
“Music breaks down barriers,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from – the music is what’s important.”