Jane Lapella has faithfully filled the sanctuary of Munsey United Methodist Church with music since 1963, when she was hired as the church’s organist a year after she and her husband, Bob, moved to Johnson City, but now she said it’s time to retire.
Bob’s job as a professor of voice and opera at East Tennessee State University brought the couple to the area and helped lead Lapella into the position she’d hold for the next 50 years, but her love affair with the organ began much earlier.
When her hometown Presbyterian church in Wapello, Iowa, purchased a new organ, Lapella, then 12 years old, got the opportunity to take lessons in playing it with another church member.
“The other woman was four or five years older than I was, so she could drive, and we drove 35 miles to another town to take these free organ lessons,” she said. “From there on, I was hooked with it.”
She went on to receive a degree from Drake University in Des Moines, a voice major and an organ minor.
It was at Drake that she met Bob, a graduate student in the school’s music department.
The two eventually found their way to Johnson City and, after a year at another local church, to Munsey.
During her half-century tenure, Lapella has seen pastors come and go and hymns trend and then wane again.
The church’s organ, installed in 1956, has been rebuilt twice since she started, but Lapella is still going strong.
She, along with Bob, has directed the children’s choir when needed, and is now accompanying the third generation of young choir members through the group.
“I think that’s one of the things I’m proudest of, is how our music program has influenced so many young people,” she said. “So many of them have gone on and done so many useful things in their lives, but lots of them have become professional musicians.”
Doug Grove-DeJarnett, Munsey’s minister of music and congregational life, has “only” been in his position for 28 years, but he said Lapella has been instrumental to the church during that time.
“One of the advantages of having somebody like Jane is that these things that people have said to her along the way, like that they wanted a certain song played at their funeral or something like that, not only did they say it, she remembers it,” he said. “Having that sort of long-term memory of the people of the congregation is an asset that just can’t be replaced.”
After her retirement at the end of the month, Lapella will still work closely with the church’s new organist, David Runner, a professor of organ at Milligan College.
Grove-DeJarnett said Runner, who will be an indefinite interim in the position, has long served as a member of the choir and has regularly filled in for Lapella in her absence.
Lapella said the keys will be in good hands under Runner, and said she’s confident it was her time to turn the instrument over to him.
“I wanted to be able to play well as I retired, I didn’t want to fade away,” she said. “I think playing in a worship setting has a lot to do with mental agility.”
As the final measure of her musical career plays out at Munsey, Lapella said she’ll still enjoy the music from her new seat in one of the pews.
“It’s just a great job to have for all kinds of reasons,” she said. “I’m glad I was given the opportunity to have it.”