Robert Town, Marcussen set to celebrate years together

3:21:49 PM CDT - Thursday, March 02, 2006

By Shannon Littlejohn

This spring marks Robert Town's 40th on campus. This year is the Marcussen organ's 20th in Wiedemann Recital Hall.

It's impossible to tell either one's story without the other. Their careers at Wichita State have been intertwined since the conception of the custom-built Danish masterpiece that first amazed and inspired Wichita audiences in its concert debut Oct. 2, 1986.

Organ lovers can celebrate the careers of both when Town performs free vespers recitals on the Marcussen March 8 and 15. His first vespers was March 1. He'll perform a farewell concert April 30.

The story begins with the 1965 hiring of a young Bob Town, fresh from his education at the University of Michigan, Syracuse University and Eastman School of Music.

At the time, it was a standard of well-respected music programs to have a professor of organ, according to George Platt, associate professor emeritus of public administration.

It was a good time for organ music in general, said James Rhatigan, former dean of students and vice president for student affairs.

"The popularity of organ was once pronounced in the United States," said Rhatigan. "To have an organ in one's home was the height of culture, and if you had a pipe organ, which many wealthy people did, this was really a symbol of culture."

Town was an award-winning organist Boston Symphony Orchestra's 1963 Young Artists Competition and finalist in the prestigious Fort Wayne, Ind., National Organ Playing Competition in 1965 who pushed his Wichita State students toward excellence.

"Bob was a great teacher of organ long before we had the Marcussen," said Rhatigan. "We had (two) Fulbright winners and national competition winners just on our little organ in the chapel."

"I might say without reservation that the success of my students through the years was the first and primary attraction to the central administration for the need for a pipe organ," said Town.

Actually, President Clark Ahlberg had placed a pipe organ on his long-term capital agenda as early as 1969, Platt said. But with Town's success and the 1974 promotion of Gordon Terwilliger to dean of fine arts, the movement was gaining steam.

By 1980, a recital hall for a new concert organ appeared on the university's capital development list.
"We agreed to put a building around an organ, rather than an organ in a building," said Rhatigan.

For the organ, Ahlberg and Town approached local philanthropist Gladys Wiedemann, who was known for generosity, especially in the arts. A student of organ herself, she had become a fan of Town's program.

Ahlberg took on the task of arranging a municipal bond sale on behalf of the university for a building; Town kept in close touch with Wiedemann, continuing a longtime friendship, and at a critical time visited her in Florida to explain the proposal. She later agreed to provide $500,000 for the organ.

Rhatigan, who as a skilled fund-raiser himself now serves as a consultant to the WSU Foundation, concedes that Town, as with many artists, is not a natural fund-raiser.

"But he and Mrs. Wiedemann had a mutual love of music so he was on solid ground," said Rhatigan. "And he's a gentleman. That went a long ways with Mrs. Wiedemann. So he was the perfect person."

Town also was assigned to research the great organ builders of the world, said Platt.

"He singled out what he has called 'a Rolls Royce company' of organ building," said Rhatigan of the 200-year-old Marcussen and Son.

Careful creation of the acoustically brilliant recital hall was followed by the on-site construction of the Marcussen by its Danish makers, augmented by WSU Physical Plant staff, overseen by Town and enjoyed by Platt as he watched the craftsmanship and camaraderie.

It was the first Marcussen organ built in North America.

Town believes, as do Rhatigan and other organ fans, that having the Marcussen and an endowed concert series (begun by Town and later endowed as the Rie Bloomfield Organ Series) has helped keep the organ program alive at WSU.

"The decline in interest in organ in this country began about 1975," said Town. "It didn't begin to affect me here until into the '80s. Nowadays it's critical. Some schools have closed their organ programs."

About four years ago, concerned about the program he has so loved, Town bequeathed part of his estate to endow an organ professorship. In spring 2005, an endowment from Dennis and Ann Ross meant that fine arts could mount a national search for a world-class successor to Town, who is preparing to leave teaching at the end of the semester.

Robert Town's vespers recitals are at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 8 and 15 in Wiedemann Recital Hall. There is no admission. Town will present the final concert of the Rie Bloomfield Organ Series at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 30. Tickets are $7 with discounts available through the Fine Arts Box Office at

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