Natvig helps carry on 100-year family tradition of church music

In many larger communities and cities, church organists move locations frequently. But the small hamlet of Caro, Mich., is celebrating 100 years of organ playing by only two organists — one of whom was the grandfather of Dr. Mary Natvig, assistant dean and professor of musicology, composition and theory in the College of Musical Arts.

Natvig’s grandfather, Frank B. Campbell, was the first organist at the church.

“My grandfather began playing there in 1915 and played there for 67 years,” Natvig said. “The second organist has played there for 33 years.” In honor of her grandfather, she made the trek to the upper thumb region of Michigan to take part in the First Presbyterian Church’s “Concert of a Century” on Oct. 18.

She performed “Adagio” and “Allegro” from George Frideric Handel’s “Sonata VI in E Major” on her violin, a piece of special significance to the church and her family.

“This piece is something I used to play with him when we visited in the summer,” she said. “In fact, he gave me my first ‘paying’ gigs. He paid me five dollars each time I played for church.”

Being an organist was not how Campbell earned a living for his family. “My grandfather was a banker,” she remembered. “Playing music was always important to him and he donated all of his salary back to the church.” Natvig remembers her grandfather as an outstanding musician. “He was quite an excellent organist who studied at the University of Michigan, but never got a degree.”   

Music held a special place in her grandfather’s life, and the family used to say that music had saved his life.

“He was stationed at Newport News during World War I and was scheduled to be shipped out to drive an ambulance on the European war front line,” she said. “Statistically, that was a likely death sentence.”

While waiting in Newport News, her grandfather would play the piano by ear to accompany the silent movies. “His supervising officer liked to go to the silent movies and one day asked Pop if he could type because the officer needed a secretary,” said Natvig.  Her grandfather told him no, he did not type. The officer told him, “Well, if you can play the piano like that, you can learn to type.”

Campbell never saw combat.  

Being back in the church was a very special for Natvig and family members who accompanied her to Caro.

“You know, it’s a small world,” she said. “The singer on the program is a young woman who grew up in that church. I just recently found out she is the very good friend of a BGSU recent graduate student whose thesis I advised.”

Very small world, indeed.