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Gift of theater organ keeps musician, 88, at play and learning

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GIFT OF LEARNING: Rupert Otto, of Chelsea, Mich., received a theater organ from his friend, organ builder Robert Walker, a few years back, and the instrument keeps him piping up, even in his 80s.

Photo courtesy Joan Kettlehut

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One of Rupert Otto's greatest joys in life has been entertaining others with music.

When the retired Chelsea, Mich., schoolteacher was just 13, he served as a choir director in his hometown of Bessemer. He filled the post until he was 20, his pay consisting of a fruitcake received every Christmas.

For 50 years, he and his wife gave piano and organ lessons, and traveled to give musical performances. He's also designed some 17 church and college organs in his lifetime, most recently a concert organ for Northern Michigan University.

Now, at 88, Otto is still learning something new musically, thanks to a friend's generous gift.

A theater organ donor

Otto lost his wife, Alice, in 2000. To help him through his grief, his friend Robert Walker - a Pennsylvania organ builder - gave Otto a Walker digital theater organ. So, while many people in their 80s have stopped taking on new projects and learning new things, Otto has begun a learning project that has brought great joy to himself, as well as to many in his community.

The organ, modeled after the biggest Wurlitzers of the silent movie era, dominates Otto's music room. It has four manual keyboards, and, Otto says, a lot of bells and whistles. With the press of a key, he can create the sound of thunder, horses' hooves and train whistles - to name just a few effects.

To distribute the instrument's sound, more than 100 speakers are hidden among the rafters of the cathedral ceiling of Otto's music room. He practices on the instrument and on a piano about five or six hours a day.

He shares his music with others, giving free organ concerts three to four times a week. At a performance, you might find an audience of 30 listeners who have come to hear this popular local musician share his music and some entertaining tales of 'the old days.' People have even crossed state lines from Ohio and Indiana to attend.

Behind the music

There's been more to Otto's life than music, of course. He joined the Army during World War II. He and his wife raised five children, all of whom he helped deliver. He earned master's degrees and completed coursework for a doctorate in school administration, served as a teacher and a superintendent of schools.

Music has always run through his life, though. In addition to being an accomplished organ and piano player, he plays drums and the violin. Once the director of the Ohio State University marching band, he continues to teach today, giving music lessons. Letters he's received from past students attest to their affection for their mentor.

Surely, a similar feeling is shared by everyone else who gets to hear the music made by a man still learning in his 80s.

Hunt for outlaw brought gig to an early end

A life spent in music isn't one lived without event. Surely one of the most memorable gigs for Rupert Otto came when he was 14.

The talented young musician was playing piano at a rustic Wisconsin lodge called 'Little Bohemia' one night when he went to the kitchen for a snack. While there, gun shots rang out in the dance hall. Who were the shooters? Government agents in pursuit of Public Enemy No. 1 - the notorious John Dillinger.

The agents didn't catch Dillinger, but they did put an early end to Otto's lodge gig: They had shot out some of the strings and hammers in the piano Otto was hired to play.