Longtime music leader ready for breather
Central Christian Church's organist/choir director retires
By James Dowd
January 1, 2006
Reprinted from the Memphis Commercial Appeal
Back in 1936 when Rose Gillespie first started learning to play the organ, King Edward VIII was planning to abdicate the British throne in order to wed an American divorcee and across the pond Franklin Delano Roosevelt was on his way to winning his second term as president.
Much has changed since then, including Gillespie's reputation as a musician, which has grown through the years.
But now the grande dame of local organists is preparing to step away from it all. After 35 years as organist and choir director at Central Christian Church in Midtown, the 86-year-old is ready to retire. Her last regular service is today.
"I'll still be available to fill in if someone needs an organist, but I won't be working all the time anymore," said Gillespie. "There comes a time when you know it's right to step aside and this is that time. I have no regrets and I've loved it all."
Gillespie has led an extraordinarily interesting life, said longtime friend and Central choir member Sarah Jane Smith.
For example, Gillespie rode a motorcycle to get to her late-shift job as an aircraft riveter during World War II. On weekends she'd finish up early Sunday, do a quick change at home and then dash off to church to play the organ.
"There's not much she hasn't done, it's really amazing when I think of it," Smith said.
And she's met some interesting folks along the way.
Gillespie met W.C. Handy in a music store once when she went in to buy a copy of "Memphis Blues" and the composer heard her ask for the sheet music. Handy offered to buy it for her, but she settled for an autograph instead.
"I was so in awe and I told him I could buy it myself, but I certainly was happy when he agreed to sign it," Gillespie recalled. "To meet the man who wrote what I considered one of the most compelling pieces of American music was an incredible experience."
The Stamps, Ark., native graduated from the former Memphis State University and taught in her home state and in Mississippi until legendary Memphis politico and family friend E.H. 'Boss' Crump helped her land a teaching job in Memphis.
Gillespie worked at Fairview Junior High and later East High, where she counted among her students a pretty teen named Cybill Shepherd. But despite her best sales pitch, she couldn't convince the budding celebrity to join the East High School chorus.
"She was such a sweet girl and so popular and all the kids wanted to hang around her, so I knew if I could get Cybill to join then everyone else would want to join," Gillespie said. "But she said she just couldn't because she was too busy with cheerleading."
Throughout her teaching career, Gillespie worked as a musician at several congregations, including Temple Baptist and Central, as well as McLemore Christian Church where in 1959 she met a young pastor named Charles Woodall.
The two worked five years together there and later when Woodall became pastor at Central he was reunited with his former music director.
"I've always had a strong appreciation for Rose, she's been a source of strength and inspiration for generations of people," Woodall said. "When she retires from Central it'll be the end of an era."
Central's pianist Amy Lindeman will also leave her post when her mentor retires. She's stepping down to focus on her impending motherhood, but she knows things won't be the same without the one she calls her surrogate grandmother.
"She's an amazing woman and I can't even imagine church without her up there playing week after week," Lindeman said.
The church will host a reception for Gillespie today after the morning worship service and the Memphis Chapter of the American Guild of Organists will dedicate its recital at 4 p.m. on Jan. 29 at Idlewild Presbyterian Church to her.
As for Gillespie, she doesn't plan to rest on her laurels. She'll serve as substitute organist, but she's looking forward to visiting lots of different churches and enjoying music from a different perspective: The pew.
"There are so many wonderful churches here and I'm looking forward to going to them and experiencing worship on a different level," Gillespie said. "I think I'll enjoy being in the congregation and letting somebody else be in charge of the music."
-- James Dowd: 529-2737