To Gene Livesay, the organ had a grand and magical appeal.
As a child, he saw the instrument while attending services at First Christian Church of Tulsa. But he really was impressed when the large organ at the local movie house rose to stage level, from the depths of the building, moments before the silent picture show.
Back at home, he carefully placed toy blocks on a desk and pretended they were organ keys and stops.
For most of his life, Livesay did not have to make believe. He spent 41 years as organist at Cherrydale United Methodist Church in Arlington, literally playing a part in some of the most meaningful rituals of community life.
He provided the stirring and swelling sounds at more than 2,000 Sunday services. He also played the famous Mendelssohn march at more than 600 weddings, as well as Bach selections for countless funerals.
In a trade that can seem anonymous to many listeners, Livesay personalized it. He sent wedding anniversary cards until it became cumbersome -- there were just too many of them.
Since 1988, he held the title of organist emeritus, occasionally taking his place at the pipe organ, which he designed, while oxygen tanks next to him in the chancel helped him breathe.
Livesay, 87, of Alexandria, died Feb. 24 after a heart attack. His death came a day before a grandson's wedding, at which he had been asked to play.
His increasing frailty made playing difficult, so the family sent tape recordings of Livesay's wedding performances over the years. At the wedding, in New Hampshire, a photo of Livesay rested atop the organ.
The organist, such a central presence at times of celebration and sorrow, practices an often underappreciated art. The instrument requires an impressive manipulation of sound options, more than the piano. He or she is a perennial figure, whose attendance is expected, and whose story is often overlooked.
Richard Eugene Livesay was born in modest circumstances. His father died in 1918 during the flu epidemic, and his stepfather left the family, which then included three children. His mother did secretarial work for the Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road.
His mother bought him a piano for his 12th Christmas. At 16, he was overjoyed when invited to play his high school's pipe organ for a school play.
In the late 1930s, he worked for Jenkins Music Co. and demonstrated Hammond organs at churches around Tulsa. Accompanying him was Veradell Elliott, a young woman he met years earlier at a church youth meeting and married in 1938.
"My mother spotted him. She thought he was a marvelous young man," she said of the skinny redhead who stood about 6 foot 1. Their first date was at a church-sponsored ice cream social.
They settled in the Washington area in the early 1940s so he could begin work as a War Department statistical analyst.
He later became secretary to several secretaries of defense, his reserved manner suiting him in a job requiring secrecy and loyalty. For fun, he kept the doodles his bosses made during meetings. Nothing of apparent state security, just nonsensical notepad scratchings and ink stains made by Elliot Richardson and others.
Livesay's work brought him to the Pentagon six days a week, sometimes for 12-hour days. Some nights, he left work to accompany choir practice and then returned to the Pentagon, from which he retired in 1973.
He also helped form what is now the Northern Virginia chapter of the American Guild of Organists and served as chapter head from 1957 to 1959.
Ralph E. Maxwell, a former chapter head, said Livesay was one of the men who drew up plans and budgets for the fledgling group, which mediates between musicians and houses of worship in disputes, holds seminars and helps introduce young pianists to the organ.
At Cherrydale, Livesay helped design its current Wicks pipe organ, an instrument about the size of a large roll-top desk that sits off to the left in the chancel. There are 37 ranks, or sets of pipes, and the sound flies from the pipe chambers above the chancel. In the rear gallery, a separate trompette-en-chamade rank of pipes blows a bright trumpet stop.
What most impressed John A. Haugen, who succeeded Livesay as organist, was Livesay's discipline maintaining two demanding jobs, at the Pentagon and the church.
"He did services with fevers and the flu, and after a 12-hour day, and always had to be on call," Haugen said. "Think about this, one job alone, 41 years -- he did it faithfully and regularly."
At Livesay's funeral, Haugen played the last movement of Charles-Marie Widor's Symphony No. 5, a grand-scale work sprouting with 16th notes. Livesay had performed it.
"He had conquered that piece himself and was so very proud of the fact that he could play it," Veradell Livesay said.