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Mitchell's Lonnie Burns wrapping up career as organist

Long time organist for First Lutheran Church in Mitchell, Lonnie Burns will be stepping down from behind the organ later this month. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Lonnie Burns calls herself a note reader.

To the members of First Lutheran Church, and many others, she's so much more than that. Burns will play this weekend at First Lutheran in Mitchell before she officially retires Sunday from a career as an organist that spans nearly half a century.

But the music of the endeared, self-taught organist will not completely go silent.

"I told Pastor Lon Kvanli I would be available to still substitute sometimes and am not leaving the church by any means. If push comes to shove and somebody got sick on a Sunday morning, I'm sure I just could go up and do it," said Burns, who will celebrate her 80th birthday on Monday.

Burns is looking forward to welcoming her family, which is travelling in from all over the country for Sunday's service. Her oldest son, Rev. Randall Burns, a trumpet major, will accompany her during both services at 8:15 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. Sunday.

At 11:30 a.m., the congregation will have a pot-luck meal for Burns. Then, from 2 to 4 p.m., her family is holding an open house at the church in honor of her birthday.

Burns' love for music and the passion to play the piano blossomed when she was a little girl living on a family farm in Corsica. The age difference between Burns and her four older siblings was significant, with her oldest sister already off to college and her brothers busy helping out on the farm when Burns was 5. Without much else to do, the piano became her best friend.

"A great influence of mine was my Aunt Lola, an excellent musician," she said. "I had already started taking piano lessons and learned how to read notes. When Aunt Lola came to visit us at home, we would always sit together at the piano and play duets."

She is thankful for the sacrifices her family made to allow her to take lessons even though times were hard.

At age 15, she landed her first organist job, playing at St. John's Lutheran Church in Blooming Valley, a little country church just a mile and a half from her home in Corsica.

"They had an old reed organ, and you had to pump all through the service to keep the air in the pipes and keep it going," Burns said.

Through high school, the young pianist kept busy accompanying soloists or entering countless contests. After high school graduation, she went on to obtain a teaching degree from the University of South Dakota at Springfield, where she met the love of her life, Cliff Burns. The couple was engaged for a year, got married and had three boys. In 1964, the young family moved to Mitchell, and in 1968 she gave birth to a daughter, Lisa.

Shortly after the family joined the congregation of First Lutheran in Mitchell, a couple of women from the music committee at the church found out she played the piano.

"I wasn't really conned into it. They asked me if I would be interested in learning to play the pipe organ. I hadn't even considered the thought," Burns said.

Burns discussed the offer with her late husband Cliff, and they decided it was a good opportunity.

One of the organists at First Lutheran, Dale Fluegel, took her under his wings. After four or five sessions, Fluegel said to her, "If it sounds good, use it."

"So I played at a funeral in 1969. I remember that very well. I shook so hard I could hardly change the pistons," Burns said.

Years of hard work, dedication, practice and hundreds of performances at various churches in the Mitchell area followed.

"It doesn't just all of a sudden happen to you. You have to keep doing it. Putting your hands together and playing with emotion is not always a natural thing or something that can be taught," Burns said.

In 1985, the senior organist at First Lutheran, Mary Woolsey, died, and Burns was offered the lead organist position, which she has held since. Burns continued teaching piano lessons to more than 200 children in the region and still volunteers at a local hospital in town.

During her life-spanning career, the gifted musician has accompanied the South Dakota Chorale under the direction of Doctor Greg Aune and Paul Almgald, played for nine musical productions at the Mitchell Area Community Theatre in Mitchell, performed several times at Dakota Wesleyan University and even accompanied the late country legend Patsy Cline.

Many soloists have appreciated working with Burns, calling her special with an incomparable gift of tuning in with them while she accompanies them on the pipe organ.

"You learn to breathe with them. You learn the inflection of the song and tune in. I think that's very important. You have to have that in you as an accompanist, even though you are not singing. It's hard to describe," Burns said. "I have never composed and do not improvise. I am a note reader, like when you go to the library and pick up a book, you can read it. I have the same feeling about music."