GLADE SPRING, Va. — Marilou Preston was just 21 when she started playing the piano at church. Now she’s 86 and still making a joyful noise to the Lord on Sundays.
For the past 64 years, most of the morning worship services at Rock Spring Presbyterian Church in Glade Spring have included the piano and organ music of Preston.
She will retire at the end of the month as a volunteer who has served as organist perhaps longer than anyone at the church.
“It’s meant a lot to me. The church has depended on me, and I’ve tried to be reliable and arrive on time,” said Preston, who has rarely missed a Sunday worship service all these years.
The longtime organist became a member of Rock Spring Presbyterian Church in 1957, a year after she and her husband, Bob, were married. At the time, the church only had a piano, but after the death of a well-loved member of the congregation, Charles Brown Snodgrass, the church dedicated a new organ to his memory.
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That was two organs ago. Preston now plays on the third organ the church has purchased.
“I’ve played for weddings, funerals and special events like Bible School and Presbytery meetings throughout the years. I can’t even count how many funerals,” she said.
During the six decades, she’s seen the appointments of as many as 15 ministers at the church.
Preston grew up playing the piano at her Damascus home, taking lessons from the late Marion Graybeal of Damascus.
“If you play the piano for a long time, it’s easy to transfer to a small organ,” she said.
The sweet, vibrating sounds of the organ, a traditional instrument of the church, have offered comfort to Preston on many occasions.
While many contemporary churches are moving away from traditional worship, Preston feels passionate about keeping the traditional hymns alive.
“We still use the Presbyterian hymn book from 1956, so our hymn singing hasn’t changed much over the years. I like the classical, traditional hymns.”
Her favorite hymns are “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
A blessing to many
The Rev. Susanne Martin said Preston’s musical talents and dedication to the church have been blessings during her 10 years as minister at the church.
“Music as a whole plays such an important role in the faith and life of a congregation,” she said.
In addition, Preston has served as a Sunday school teacher for as many as 60 years. Alternating with other teachers, she still teaches the adult class.
Until recently, Preston was a member of the Women of the Church, who meet monthly for Bible study and fellowship.
“She’s always been there to support the church financially and prayerfully by her presence in all things,” Martin said.
The minister described Preston as a humble, kind and generous person.
“She’s a devoted servant of Christ. We’ve been blessed by her music offering as a volunteer,” she said.
Preston also has been dubbed the resident historian because of her knowledge of the history of Rock Spring Presbyterian Church. She even composed a small book about the church’s rich history in 1984, when the church celebrated its 200th anniversary.
During her 80th birthday, the organist was honored with a celebration hosted by the members of the congregation. She received a music-themed patchwork quilt bordered with a fabric that resembles a keyboard. An original piano melody, “Marilou’s Organ,” was composed especially for Preston by a relative of the pastor. A plaque hangs at the back of the sanctuary with the words, “In honor of Marilou Hall Preston for faithfully sharing her gift of music ministry on the organ, with love from your Rock Spring Church Family.”
“We look at her retirement with some sadness, but mostly with gratitude for all that she’s given,” said Martin. “In this day in time, it’s hard to find a volunteer musician with such devotion. It’s a rare treasure.”
The church is conducting a search for a new organist to take Preston’s place.
'The lives of a country couple'
Preston graduated from the old Rock School in Damascus in 1952.
A 1956 graduate of Duke University, Preston’s professional life began as an English teacher at the former Damascus High School for one year before she left to begin raising a family of three children, Sarah, Grey and Joe.
Her husband was a dairy farmer at the time, farming land on the Middle Fork of the Holston River. At 92, he still farms beef cattle.
“We’ve just lived the lives of a country couple,” Preston said.
When their youngest child, Joe, was 10 years old, Preston went to work as a reference librarian at Washington County Public Library in Abingdon, and later she managed the Glade Spring branch until 1996.
While her children were young, she taught piano lessons to neighborhood youth on the same Wurlitzer piano she learned to play as a child. She still has the heirloom piano and also a small organ gifted to her by her husband.
Preston leaves with a legacy of service to the church.
“I’ve been blessed to have played this long,” said Preston. “The transition will definitely be a change for me now.”
“But, I must confess, I will enjoy hearing someone else play the organ on Sundays.”
Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at email@example.com.