When I first contacted C. B. Fisk, Inc. about the need for a new instrument at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, I had no idea what the outcome would be. Virginia Lee Fisk was gracious and warm during our first conversations, but she soon directed me to Charlie. His soft and precise manner of speaking reminded me of my own mathematician - physicist father. His cordial manner and enthusiasm for our project encouraged me to be brave and pursue what seemed an impossible dream at the time.
Eventually Charlie and Virginia Lee arrived in Houston to inspect the church and visit with Clyde Holloway, the church's consultant, the organ committee and vestry members. A tour of nearby Rice University with its neo - Moorish architecture that inspired the design of Palmer Church reminded Charlie of earlier days when had installed the Andover Organ in the Rice Chapel. Charlie was also intrigued by the architecture of the University and the church's relationship to it.
He was visibly taken with both the exterior and interior features of the church. He immediately set to work ascertaining the physical and acoustical features of the worship space. He took off his tie and jacket, rolled up his sleeves, borrowed a flashlight and began to investigate spaces we had never discovered, such as the crawl areas above the organ blower that was situated in an attic above the sacristy. The construction of the attic above the church's ceiling was the source of curiosity, especially since no access to it could be found, a defect that he soon overcame. Yankee ingenuity won the day.
Charlie's interest in the ceiling and the attic above it centered on its acoustical properties. The room was much less resonant than anticipated, based on the shape of the room, and the materials of the flooring and walls. He surmised that the decorated, coffered ceiling, which appeared to be made of plaster, was in fact comprised of a softer, thinner product. And, of course, he turned out to be right. Climbing up a very tall ladder in the balcony revealed a composite material from the 1920s that deadened sound much as office ceiling panels do. A similar type of material in fact lined the back wall of the church, probably to reduce or eliminate unwanted echoes.
When Charlie met later with the organ committee and members of the vestry of the church, he made a very telling statement. He said that even if we opted to repair the water - damaged organ presently in the building and not purchase a new organ at all, the worship of the church would be immeasurably enhanced by replacement of, or acoustical adjustments to, the existing ceiling. The second most important, and much easier, task would be to remove the acoustical tiles from the back wall, but to take care not to reinstate an echo problem.
He agreed to submit a proposal to the church for a new organ. He also reluctantly, and I'm told exceptionally, agreed to send us a drawing of the proposed instrument, which we intended to place in the rear balcony. He recommended strongly that we consult with an acoustician. As a result David Klepper later made studies at Palmer. The resulting improvements in acoustics were connected to the organ project from its earliest days. Charlie's predictions about the increased vitality of worship, as well as music, were borne out by the installation in 1991.
During succeeding years Charlie's health failed, but even when he stopped going to the shop, he chatted with me on the phone with enthusiasm for a new organ at Palmer. He consistently praised the folks at the shop and commended them to us as entirely capable of working without him, as they had done at Stanford. He did this with few allusions to his own illness, which he never identified to me. I could tell from the increasing weakness of his voice that his condition was fragile. Our conversations ceased month or so before his death.
The ultimate question whether to sign a contract with a firm whose founder was gone faced the organ committee when the financing of the project at last appeared to be viable. The resolution of the issue was entrusted to David Ashley White, Clyde Holloway, Joel Shannon, and me. Following a trip to Gloucester we voted unanimously to recommend Fisk. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity not only to have been the happy and proud organist for a new Fisk organ, Opus 99, but also to have been a friend, however briefly, of a thoughtful, honest and generous gentleman whose genius has left a treasured legacy of fine instruments and memories.