In Memoriam: John Heaton

(Edit in 2020: My apologies if you’ve come here thinking I might be writing about the YouTube music reviewer–you aren’t alone. This is a remembrance of a beloved personal friend, a long-time church choir director in Kentucky.)

Yesterday afternoon I attended a memorial service for an old friend, John Heaton, who passed away on Thursday. John was choir director at First Christian Church in Georgetown when I started attending in the mid 90s, and he served in that capacity until the end of 2011 (close to twenty years altogether, I think). Here are a few assorted notes and memories.

–John came to First Christian in retirement. He’d served as Minister of Music at various Baptist churches in his career; one of the attractions of doing part-time work at FCC was that his daughter Charlotte was the organist.

–John was a delight as a director. He was great about working on pieces several weeks in advance and we invariably felt comfortable about what we were singing on Sunday when its time came. John definitely had a way of making rehearsal an enjoyable time of fellowship; that’s one big reason why I continued to participate for those almost seventeen years and kept on afterward. He taught me a lot about singing, even if I’m still strictly an ensemble, not a solo, vocalist. For Christmas, we did formal cantatas sometimes, while other years he assembled a program from our library of seasonal music.

–I came to appreciate John Rutter through John; there were many other favorites, but two particular standouts are Tom Fettke’s “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name” and Craig Courtney’s “Thou Art Holy.”

–In 1999, John decided we should sing Celebrate Life!, a “pulpit musical drama” written in the 70s by Buryl Red and Regan Courtney. We worked on it for several months and performed it (just one time) that August. It was probably the most ambitious, yet most rewarding, thing we did as a choir. The picture at the top is one Martha took on the day of our performance; we were in costume that day, ostensibly in the style of the first-century CE.

–John was one of the people in the room the night in January 95 I met Martha, when I first showed up for choir practice at the invitation of my physics colleague Bart Dickinson.

–He loved to sing in his barbershop quartet, and I was fortunate to hear them a few times. I learned at the memorial service that he’d been a mean trumpet player back in the day. I would have enjoyed that, too.

–John suffered from macular degeneration for much of the time I knew him. While it kept him from driving, it didn’t slow him much at all in his directing, and it certainly didn’t stop him from serving as a greeter at Kroger in Lexington. I can still picture him standing in front of us, infectious grin on his face as he delighted in the music he was helping to make.

–I last saw John about a year ago when he and his wife Vivian came back to visit at FCC. We talked only briefly afterward, but it was awfully good to see him out in the congregation from the choir loft.

–As it happens, we sang the Fettke piece just a week ago. It always makes me think of John. Here it is, sung by a much larger group than ours!

Rest in peace, John—your friendship and kindness to me over the years are so appreciated.

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