Inside a campus tradition: the story of the Heefner Organ

The Heefner Organ in Bomberger Hall recently celebrated its 30th anniversary on campus. Photo courtesy of Sydney Cope.

Brian Thomas

When news of the Pearl Harbor attacks broke on campus, William Heefner headed to the Ursinus chapel to play the organ for anyone who wanted to listen. Decades later, music professor John French played an organ bearing Heefner’s name to console mourners coping with the death of Ursinus president Bobby Fong.

The Heefner organ in Bomberger Hall had its 30th anniversary on campus this academic year. Since its installment, the music department has hosted a series of visiting organists and concerts by Alan Morrison, a professor at the Curtis Institute and the resident organist at Ursinus. This has generated a community centered on the organ and the performances that most students don’t know about.

“It’s largely a community of people who have been sort of long-term patrons of that organ series,” said Holly Hubbs, professor of music. “Sometimes I feel like there’s a disconnect … and wonder if people even know that stuff is going on because it is such an outside community attending [the series].”

Aside from the performance series, which attracts some of the most accomplished organists in the world, the instrument gets played for a number of traditions and services on campus. When memorial services are held, John French, professor of music, often plays. Students also get to hear it during academic convocation and baccalaureate.

“There’s this little bookend … it’s kind of ushering them in and ushering them out,” said Hubbs, describing this tradition.

That said, most students are more familiar with the lore of the organ than its actual sound.

Ursinus students often hear on tours that the Heefner organ is the biggest organ in Pennsylvania, and while this is an over-exaggeration, it is pretty impressive. A hand-out that outlines the organs specs says that “it has become known as one of the premier organs in the region, capable of allowing organists to perform the entire range of literature composed for the instrument.” It has a total of 3,593 pipes, and each part was custom-built.

The Heefner organ is not Ursinus’s first. According to the recent project “Breaking Ground: A History of the Construction, Destruction, and Renovation of Ursinus College” from the Bears Make History course, it was predated by the Clark organ. The project was undertaken by Shelby Bryant, Morgan Kentsbeer, Breanna Knisely, Morgan Larese, and Rachel Zane.

Installed in 1916, the Clark organ was much smaller, and was a gift from Elizabeth Clark, the widow of Ursinus advisory council member Charles Clark. President George Omwake was “overjoyed” by the instrument, but it didn’t last long. Unspecified fumes from a chemical lab in Bomberger wrecked the pipes beyond repair. The façade was kept up for decorative purposes, and an electronic organ replaced the Clark organ in the 1940s.

The Heefner organ was a gift from Lydia Heefner, the mother of 1942 graduate, benefactor, and board member William Heefner. As a student, Heefner played the organ for Ursinus chapel services, and was the first to play the new one in 1986. It was built by Connecticut company Austin Organs, and specifically designed so students could access the internal components, according to the Bears Make History Project.

A good way to fully appreciate the complexity of the organ is to do an organ crawl. “Crawl” is industry slang, but it’s accurate—you literally have to crawl and climb to the top of the Bomberger auditorium. Last fall, I took the opportunity to go on the crawl.

You start in the basement, looking at the tanks that funnel air through the pipes.

Then, you enter a tiny door on the third floor of Bomberger, climb up a few rickety ladders, and carefully tip-toe across a dusty bridge that overlooks the auditorium, eye level with the back of the balcony. Here, you’re surrounded by many of the pipes, ranging in size from miniscule to massive. It’s hard to take it all in, and equally hard to not appreciate the musical range of the instrument.

It can be hard to organize logistics, but French said that every fall he takes his music history class on the crawl before Thanksgiving break and welcomes visitors.

Still, for most students, according to Hubbs and French, the organ is mostly a visual and decorative phenomenon, which is understandable considering how it looks.

“It’s stunning to look at, and a good instrument like that should be,” said French.

The organ’s size and complexity means that new of sounds—which are made by combining different pipes and stops—are always coming through when visiting organists come through.

“Their techniques differ, the way they combine sounds differ. I’m constantly hearing new [combinations of sounds],” said Hubbs. “That’s the beauty of the organ, that, even though it’s been there forever, you decide to can combine these different stops and it might be a sound that has never come out of it before.”

French, who plays the organ, agreed.

“It’s fabulous, it’s a great instrument, it really is,” he said. “It can just do all kinds of things. It has a wonderful variety of colors … just because it’s large doesn’t mean it’s loud all the time. It’s the variety of sounds you can get out of it.”

This year’s performance series has wrapped up, but the department is already looking forward to next year, when organ students at the Curtis Institute will come to campus, according to Hubbs. Students should watch out next fall for specific dates and times.