The Lehman family piano and a shared love of music that transcended rules

Kathleen Weaver Kurtz, who says she is more of a writer than a pianist, with the Lehman family piano, a gift that resides in the President's Reception Room at Eastern Mennonite University. To provide more information about the donation to EMU, Kurtz interviewed family members. The resultant text, shared here, is a wonderful chronicle of one family's love of music and the travails of abiding by church doctrine. (Photo by Macson McGuigan)

In the President’s Reception Room at Eastern Mennonite University stands an old upright piano, dark woodwork with a decorative molded vine pattern across the front. A brass plaque on it reads (in part) “Gifted to Eastern Mennonite University by the family of Chester K. Lehman.” The piano stands off to the side, not immediately noticeable when one enters the room. Had I not gone there looking for it, I may well not have paid any attention to it. EMU accepted it, not because they needed a piano for that room, but because it had belonged to my grandfather, Chester K. Lehman, who had been a professor and academic dean for many years. They knew he loved music, but the current “they” who accepted the piano had little or no idea of its story, of the full weight of its meaning in the history of one extended family who has cumulatively contributed several hundred years of teaching to Eastern Mennonite School/College/University.[1]

Kathleen Weaver Kurtz polishes the piano that she remembers being played as a child by her grandparents. (Photo by Macson McGuigan)

The piano looked a little sad and neglected. I wanted to polish it, to make it look as well loved as it had been, and also, I wanted to tell its story.

The story begins more than a century ago in Lancaster County with the Daniel N. Lehman family. Daniel and his wife Magdalena raised nine children. Unlike many Lancaster County Mennonite farmers, they valued education so much that they moved into town, making it easier for their children to attend Millersville State Normal School. There Chester (and some of his siblings) studied voice and sang in glee clubs as well as earning credentials for teaching school. A picture from that time shows a dapper young Chester, surrounded by what brings to mind the term “a bevy” of young women in lacey white dresses, the group he conducted. His brother Daniel stands on the back row.

The entire family loved music. D.N. taught singing schools, the popular way in that day to teach music reading and part singing. A parlor organ was the center of much family activity. The children learned to play, not just proper, stately hymns befitting their preacher/bishop father, but the popular music of the day, including some ragtime tunes. They made up songs of their own as well which they attempted to play even in old age, accompanied by much laughter and joking. Music was fun as well as worshipful and something that drew the family together.

The darker notes of this story begin in 1908 when Annie, the oldest of the Lehman children, and her husband, A.D. Wenger moved from Lancaster County to a much smaller Mennonite community in southern Virginia, where the thinking of A. D.’s brother-in-law, George R. Brunk held sway. Brunk believed it was wrong to have musical instruments and pushed Virginia Mennonite Conference to pass a rule forbidding ordained ministers to have musical instruments in their homes. (In those days no Mennonite churches had instruments.) Annie, who loved to play the organ, had a hard decision to make—whether to stir up trouble or sell the small parlor organ her parents had given her as a young woman. She chose to sell it, but that didn’t keep her from crying when a man came to take it away. One of her granddaughters recounts the story that was handed down. “Grandma started to cry [when the men came to pick up the organ] and the man said, “Well, if you don’t want to get rid of it, you can have it.” Grandma said, “No, take it, take it.”[2] Of the loss of Annie’s beloved organ her daughter said:

I never heard her complain one word [about the organ]. She was a Minister’s wife, and she was going to live it. …She loved singing. Besides having music at home, she taught some singing schools in the Fentress community. She welcomed the chance to play an organ or piano in homes they visited. She’d gather people around to sing hymns while she played.[3]

Millersville State Normal School Glee Club with Chester Lehman, director, and Daniel third from right in the back row. (Courtesy photo)

Even her playing in others’ homes was disapproved of. After Brunk wrote a letter to Annie’s husband A.D. expressing disapproval of her doing so, Annie responded directly to Brunk by letter:

I did not know that playing while others sang “was promoting a wrong spirit” . . . I am sorry I have offended you and will try to shield Edna [George and Katie’s daughter boarding at the Wengers] from further temptation. I ask your pardon.

I always enjoy singing, and when there is an instrument around, it is so much easier to get started in singing. Last Sunday we visited in a home, and for Edna’s sake we had no music nor singing except when we were nearly ready to go, [my son] and I sang one song while I played. Since a child I have played, and it is so much easier to learn a song in that way than by note [reading] . . . I am happy and satisfied without [a piano]. I gave it up for your sake and am sorry if I fail to please you.[4]

At some point Annie’s mother Magdalena took up the piano issue with George Brunk. The only documentation for this is the story Chester’s wife Myra (my grandmother) told me. Magdalena wrote a letter to George R. Brunk, challenging his position on musical instruments. She told him how important the family organ was in their home, how they used it for singing hymns and for playing other songs, and how much enjoyment it brought to the entire family. Myra did not know whether or how G.R. Brunk responded, but she clearly admired the spunk of her mother-in-law.

Three more Lehmans made their way to Virginia. Elizabeth came to teach in the new school in 1919 but taught only a year before marrying John Kurtz, who had been hired to build the school’s new building. In 1921 Daniel and Chester followed, also recruited to teach. All three of them brought with them a love of music. Daniel had a small parlor organ and a violin which he had played in a school ensemble in Pennsylvania. Chester brought with him books of bass arias and art songs, piano music, and choral music from his years of voice lessons and choral work. As soon as he was able, he bought a piano. Elizabeth had no piano but undoubtedly hoped to buy one at some point. The musical tradition thrived on College Avenue, where the three siblings lived in a row. Elizabeth stopped teaching when she got married, but Daniel and Chester became active in leading choral groups at the new school. Before long, both Daniel and Chester were ordained by Virginia Conference and musical instruments had to go.

Daniel took his organ apart and the pieces lay around for years as scrap wood.[5] He took his violin to the attic and never spoke of it to his family.[6] Harold, his oldest son, remembers the violin’s banishment, but son Mark was too young when it disappeared to know it existed. He remembers though a visit to Pennsylvania when he was a boy. The family was visiting in someone’s home when Mark walked into a room of adults, and there, to his amazement, stood his father, violin under his chin, playing competently. He had no idea his father possessed this skill.[7] Mark went on to comment that in later life, being around others who had proficiency at a musical instrument made him sad that he had not been given the opportunity to take lessons when he was young. It had never been considered a possibility.

Chester’s daughter Miriam (Lehman Weaver) remembered vividly the loss of their piano. She wrote:

I was so young when we got our piano that I have no clear memories of getting it. I think we had the piano about a year . … I did not play but always had in mind that when I was a bit older there would be piano lessons and I looked forward to that with much anticipation  … I loved music and loved to hear my father play. Mother played some too but not as often.

However, there came a day when we children were told that we would no longer have our piano — it had to go. Why, we wondered. I do not recall that we were told why. All I know and remember is the tremendous sadness I felt. I remember the piano sitting on the back of the truck that was to take it away and a black man from the store standing at the keyboard and playing something and I looked longingly at our dear piano as the truck moved down the driveway and out into the street. Now we would no longer hear my father play “Ben Hur’s Chariot Race,” “Star of the East,” and other favorites of ours, and worse yet, how would I ever learn to play?

For me, there were profound feelings of grief connected with the loss of our piano. Later on I was told that because Virginia Conference had decided to ban musical instruments for ministers and faculty members, we had to get rid of our piano. I felt very unfairly discriminated against. I used to hatch elaborate schemes whereby we could get around this restriction by putting the piano in the attic where no one else could see or hear it, or even putting it in the chicken house behind our house. As a compensation for not having a piano in our own home, I took every opportunity to play when we went visiting in homes that had pianos or organs. When we visited our grandparents’ homes in [Pennsylvania], I spent hours playing all the songs that I could in the keys of C, G, and F–playing them by [shaped] note since that was the only way I could read the scores at that time. . . I was very jealous of other girls who could take lessons and play really well.[8]

Chester and Elizabeth playing the piano in 1952.

Up the street Elizabeth’s daughters, felt similarly deprived. Betty (Kurtz Deputy) recalled that every year at Virginia Conference time she and her four sisters “jumped on Papa (who was also ordained) to get musical instruments back again.”[9] Betty could not understand, when the Bible, both Old Testament and New, “was full of instruments—lutes, lyres, harps, trumpets” that they could be considered so wrong. Where was the logic and biblical basis for the conference rule?

Not having musical instruments did not dampen the family’s love of music.  Chester made music a part of his daily life. He sang as if his life depended on it, and, in a way, it did. Music filled a place in him that nothing else seemed to touch. Both he and Daniel taught singing schools and directed choirs at EMS before there was a music department. The two brothers sang in the Faculty Quartet, traveling to many local churches to give programs.

Chester, if he couldn’t have a piano, could at least collect records. He began at some point in the 1940s—first fat albums of 78’s that took two sides of two records to play a Haydn symphony and later skinny 33’s that contained a whole symphony on a side. He invited groups of students into his home to listen to music. He sang in choral groups whenever he had a chance and attended every choral program at EMC that he could squeeze into his schedule. He spent untold hours on the committees that produced a succession of Mennonite hymn books over the span of his career.

Finally, in May of 1947, the Virginia Conference rule on pianos was reversed. According to family legend both Chester and John Kurtz went out that same day and bought pianos. It may not have happened quite that precipitously, because Betty remembers that her father went to look at pianos, chose one, and then took his wife Elizabeth to approve it. Betty wondered, as she spoke to me, where the money came from to buy it. “He may have had to borrow money,” she concluded. I wonder the same thing about Chester. Faculty salaries were so meager that the family lived paycheck to paycheck and depended on money from raising chickens to make ends meet. It is an indication of the importance of having a piano that each of these men found a way to buy one immediately.

When the brand new Acrosonic (Baldwin) spinet was delivered to the Kurtz house, “The look on Mama’s face was radiant,” Betty recalls, “radiant.” The Kurtzes were eager for their cousins to come to see their new purchase and also eager to go down the street to see Uncle Chester’s equally new Stieff piano. For years the two sets of cousins had a running argument about which piano was better.

Chester’s wife Myra wrote about the piano to her daughter Miriam, who was by that time married:

Papa (Chester) surely is enjoying [the piano] and so are the rest of us. On Mon. night Rob said, “Well, I reckon I must go and see Geraldine about taking lessons,” so straight way he went, changed clothes, went up to Hartmans and came home later saying that he has arranged to start [in] two weeks … [10]

Miriam responded:

We … greatly rejoice with you over the PIANO. What kind is it and is it a new one? Oh, I just would like so much to come home and play it. Well, I am very glad for all of you and wish you all many melody filled moments in the future. I want to say this and then forget it—it surely pains me to think that all the years when I was home and just longed and longed to have a piano that we couldn’t have one. I can’t understand why it had to be that way … are the Kurtz’s getting one? I would think the girls would be very anxious to have one now.

Daniel Lehman, 1962.

Betty remembers how much her family enjoyed having a piano. On days when her father worked at his desk and was ready for a break, he would call out, “I want to hear some playing and singing.” Elizabeth would drop her work and go to the piano. Betty and her sisters stopped whatever they were doing and came to stand around the piano and sing several songs as their mother played. Another memory of Betty’s is her mother going to the piano first thing on Easter morning and playing “Awake, awake o earth, thy many voices raise.” Elizabeth loved to play and played well—”Ben Hur’s Chariot Race” and “A Maiden’s Prayer” are two Betty named. In the years after John’s death, Elizabeth spent many hours at the piano playing her way, song by song, through the hymnal multiple times.

Daniel did not act as quickly as Chester and Elizabeth, but when he retired, his violin again appeared from the attic. He was able to enjoy playing with one of his grandsons who by that time was taking violin lessons.

For Annie, their oldest sister, who had sold her beloved organ when she moved to Virginia, the change came too late. She lived her last years with her daughter Mary, whose daughter Joanne wrote:

… I remember that whenever she finished eating, Grandma would tap her fingers on the table to a rhythm as though she were playing piano … [After high school] I went to work full-time at EMC (now EMU) in the cleaning department. It didn’t take me long to save enough money to buy a second-hand piano. I hoped it would be a great consolation to Grandma to have a piano in the house where it would be easily accessible for her to play. We placed it in the parlor next to her bedroom. She was eager to play it, but when she tried, she discovered that her fingers were too stiff to play anymore. She only tried to play that one time, as far as I can remember.[11]

A small bracket on the piano dedicates the piano to Chester K. Lehman. (Photo by Macson McGuigan)

When Miriam finally had access to a piano again she took lessons for a while but never achieved what she dreamed of as a child. She found great satisfaction in playing hymns and did so whenever she had an opportunity. Even days before her death when she had almost no energy, the little she had she chose to use at the piano. When she no longer had energy even to play, her daughter Carol took over, playing for hours the songs she knew Miriam loved.

Similarly, the last photograph we have of Chester is of him playing the piano two months before his death. By then his memory was far gone, but his fingers still knew the familiar patterns on the keys. What was most important to him lasted longest.

So, the unobtrusive upright piano in the corner of the President’s Lounge is not just any old piano. It represents multiple generations of one family’s hopes, disappointments, dreams and joys. It is the much longed-for piano that arrived at Chester’s house in late May or early June of 1947. It is a reminder that no era of deprivation lasts forever, and perhaps a gentle reminder that rules can hurt as well as help, a reminder that all leaders do well to keep in mind.

Notes

[1] Elizabeth Lehman Kurtz, Daniel W. Lehman, Chester K. Lehman, A.D. Wenger (husband of Annie Lehman), Chester Wenger, Paul J. Lehman, Harold Lehman, Elsie Lehman, Miriam Lehman Weaver, Esther Lehman, Robert Lehman, Carol Ann Weaver, Dorothy Jean Weaver. With the exception of one year, beginning in 1919 one or more members of the extended D.N. Lehman family has served on the faculty through this current academic year.

[2]Lois M. Lehman and Rhoda E. Cressman, A.D. & Annie: Stories, Letters, and Memories of A. D. Wenger and Annie Lehman Wenger, their Families and their Descendants, p. 225 All quotes from this book used with permission.

[3] Loc. cit.

[4]Ibid., p. 339.

[5] James D. Lehman, personal interview, 2017.

[6] Harold Lehman, personal interview, 2016.

[7] Mark Lehman, personal interview, Oct. 12, 2017.

[8] Miriam Lehman Weaver, written for “Quietly Landed,” a musical theatre production by Carol Ann Weaver, premiered Nov. 4, 1994, at the Quiet in the Land Conference at Millersville University (where Annie, Elizabeth, Daniel and Chester had studied many years earlier).

[9] Betty Kurtz Deputy, personal interview, Oct. 4, 2017.

[10] Myra K. Lehman, family letter, June 25, 1947.

[11] Lehman and Cressman, p.366.