By Minnie Lamberth
Sarah and Jack Lee have sung in the sanctuary choir at First Baptist Church of Montgomery for 60 consecutive years. That’s not a misprint. That’s not one of those marketing tricks (a “combined” 60 years – because in that case it would be 120). It’s quite true. Sarah and Jack Lee, ages 87 and 88, began singing in the sanctuary choir in 1953. They will conclude their 60-year run in June when they move to Birmingham to be near their daughter, Helen.
We have their parents to thank for their long-time service at this church. When I sat down with them the other day, that’s how they began their story of their 60-year choir membership.
“My father was an evangelistic singer,” Jack said. “He worked in a lot of different churches.”
At one point, E. Powell Lee Sr. was on staff at Southside Baptist Church in Birmingham, where Sarah’s parents were members; actually, they were dating then. Powell was young and single, and as Sarah’s mother had told her, “All the girls in the church were flipping over him.”
Unbeknownst to these girls, however, while Powell was working with the troops at a church in Arkansas, Jack said, “He met a lady.”
“He was singing for the troops, and he needed someone to play for him,” Sarah explained. “Someone said, ‘Helen Jackson can play,’ so he heard her playing the piano and pretty much that was it.” That lady would become Powell’s bride, Jack’s mother and her granddaughter’s namesake.
Sarah was born in Birmingham, but she said that’s only because “that’s where my mother was.” Her parents, Walter and Mae Davis, married in Birmingham, then moved to Mobile. Walter traveled a lot in his surgical supply career, so Mae went to stay with her parents during her pregnancy.
Sarah’s family moved to Montgomery in 1935 when she was 10 years old, and they joined First Baptist Church. Jack’s family came to First Baptist in Montgomery in 1942 when his dad became the director of the USO here in World War II.
Jack had a sister named Dixie, and a brother named E. Powell Lee Jr., called Pal. Between the two of them, Sarah said, “I thought they were the cutest boys I ever saw.” Sarah’s parents recognized the Lees from their mutual time at Southside, and they became reacquainted.
Sarah started dating Pal, who was two years older. But war changed everything. “My brother was a hot pilot,” Jack said. “He’d received a Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf clusters.” On D-Day Plus 2, Pal got a direct hit while flying a mission over France and died. He’s buried in Belgium.
Jack served in the Marine Corps and spent a year in the South Pacific. When he got discharged, he returned to Montgomery, where his parents had also returned after three years in Greenwood, Mississippi. Jack’s father had been director of the USO there, and now they’d moved back to Montgomery to close out the USO here.
Sarah and Jack had stayed friends and corresponded during the years. But once they were together again, things changed. As Sarah assessed the situation, “I said, ‘To heck with this platonic stuff.’ It was more serious than that.”
They married in November 1949 at First Baptist, with Jack’s father performing the ceremony. Jack had recently gotten a job at Westinghouse in Baltimore, however, so that’s where they spent their first three years of marriage and where their first daughter (also named Sarah) was born.
“I thought I was going to the North Pole,” Sarah said. “It was cold up there.” They were transferred to Birmingham, and another year later, they were transferred to Montgomery.
“That was in 1953,” Jack said. “That’s when I joined the First Baptist Church. She rejoined.” Sarah’s parents were still here. And after a career that had taken them to Oklahoma, Mississippi, South Carolina, Kentucky, Canada and Texas, Jack’s parents also came back to Montgomery not long after.
“Jack’s mother played the piano probably better than anyone I’ve ever known in my life,” Sarah said. “We would just spend an evening where she was playing the piano and Jack would sing.”
“That was when Betty Doss was our minister of music. She was also the organist,” Jack said.
“She started the children’s choirs in our church,” Sarah added.
“She was replaced by Posey Starkey as the minister of music, and Virginia Figh became the organist,” Jack said. “When Posey left, John Condra was our next minister of music, and he was here five years.”
There was a year when the church didn’t have a minister of music, and Jack stood in as director. “I think it was between Condra and Roper,” Jack said. “Virginia did all the work, and I took all the glory. Virginia selected all the music and everything. I just waved my arms.”
Jack’s father also was part of the church’s music history. In their final move back to Montgomery, Jack said, “He led the Sunday night singing for about seven years before he died in 1965.” Jack’s mother died five months to the day after his father died.
John Condra was minister of music for just five years, Sarah said, but she and Jack are still friends with them 40 years later. Sarah said it may have been because their children were teenagers when John was on the staff, and the music program was influential in their young lives. She said their older daughter, Sarah, started calling John “Condra-baby,” and when she did, others started calling him that too. “He didn’t like it,” Sarah added.
Early on, Jack was in men’s choruses, and Sarah soon began to sing solos. “I think Posey started giving voice lessons,” Jack said. “That’s when he was trying to develop soloists for the choir.”
Posey led productions that were well-known in music ministry during the ‘50s and ‘60s. “He liked to do big productions. We did Elijah, Seven Last Words, Christmas Oratorio,” Jack said. Both Jack and Sarah had solos in Elijah.
“One of the things in my old age I miss is my voice,” Sarah said. “If I sing a solo, it’s an accident.”
When Dale Huff became pastor, and Bill Roper became the minister of music, Sarah was working as a part-time secretary at the church. She said she sat in on some meetings where Dale and Bill began discussing the idea of a Living Christmas Tree. “I thought to myself, ‘Yuck.’ A bunch of people standing in a tree singing. That’s the tackiest thing I ever heard,” she said. But then she added that over the next few months, “Bill sold us on it.”
Indeed in the 32 years of performances, Sarah and Jack have not missed a single one. They’ve sung for every performance every year since the tree began – meaning, whether it was a year when the choir sang nine performances, or a year when the choir sang five, they sang in every one of those performances. Every year.
Jack had two other responsibilities for the Living Christmas Tree productions. He duplicated the tapes, later CDs, of the LCT music for choir members to rehearse their parts on their own.
Sara Jo Bagley started creating these tapes when she became organist, Jack said. “She had two recorders. She played the music on one recorder. Then she would play the song back, plus she would play the part.” In later years, Jack worked the sound equipment in the choir room as the choir members sang the songs for the recording over which Sara Jo would later play the parts. That way the soprano, alto, tenor or bass choir member could hear the specific note they were to sing over the rest of the music.
Jack has also served as co-chairman of the Lights Committee for the last 22 years. He said that about the time he retired in 1991, Hugh Naftel came to him and asked him to help rebuild the light system on the tree. “We used to have all the lights in one big old bundle,” he said.
“We had Pick Davidson, Henry Steindorff, Jimmy Rouse… there must have been one or two others. We worked on the sixth floor.” This was in the large space on the top floor of the education building, where they had plenty of room to string out the lights and rebuild them. “We rewired them, put them in plastic conduit so they’d be safer. So I became co-chairman of the Christmas tree light committee with Hugh Naftel. From ’91 to the present.”
Lighting responsibilities were a natural for Jack, since he had an electrical engineering degree and spent his career as an x-ray engineer. “I sold and installed x-ray equipment for 36 years,” he said. “I installed all the x-ray equipment at Baptist when it opened (in 1963). I was working for Sarah’s father at Durr Surgical Supply Company, a division of Durr Drug Company.”
“That was interesting, having your father-in-law as your boss,” Sarah added.
Sarah and Jack were also part of Living Christmas Tree ensembles. “We did a number of quartets over the years,” Jack said. “Mike Wilson sang bass, I sang baritone, Frank Montgomery sang second tenor and Glenn Sylvest sang first tenor. We did that for several years on the Tree.”
Jack added, “Helen’s the tree soloist in our family. For the first ten years, she sang O Holy Night at the top of the tree.” Helen, their second daughter, later moved to Birmingham.
“We watched one of those tapes the other night,” Sarah said. “It was a lot of fun to watch and remember the songs.”
In addition to her membership in the sanctuary choir, Sarah took another role in the music ministry. She said, “I worked with children’s music for about 30 years. That’s the thing that meant the most to me.”
She said she had always wanted to do something like that but didn’t know how. Then a lady named Martha Kirkland put on a music clinic. “She pretended we were the choir,” Sarah said. “The way Martha Kirkland taught us, they (the children) each did a musical activity to begin with, then they’d all come together and sing.”
Sarah also used Orff instruments – the tone-bar instruments often associated with children’s choirs, such as glockenspiel, xylophone and metallophone. “Sarah always had kids doing stuff with the Orff instruments,” Jack said.
The music ministry at First Baptist Church has been important to Sarah and Jack, as they have been to the music ministry. “It’s been central to our lives in Montgomery,” Jack said. “It’s been absolutely wonderful.”
“It’s blessed us more than we’ve blessed it,” Sarah added. The church helped raise their kids in all the right ways, she said – with choir tours, youth camps, and more.
“We’ve always loved our ministers of music,” Jack said. They spoke especially highly of Chip Colee, who stepped in Bill Roper’s large shoes after his 32-year ministry. “He’s a good minister and a good friend,” Jack said of Chip.
Sarah and Jack are coming up on their 64th wedding anniversary in November. “By the way, we still like each other a lot,” Sarah said.
“Yes, we do,” Jack said.
In addition to their two daughters, they also have 23-year-old triplet grandchildren.
“It’s been a wonderful trip,” Jack said.
“We’ve had a good ride,” Sarah said.
Amen to that.
Hebrews 12 speaks of a “cloud of witnesses” that surround us – the people who by their acts of faith generations ago have laid the groundwork for what today we know and understand about God.
I didn’t know until I talked to Sarah and Jack that Betty Doss started the children’s choir program. I never heard of Betty Doss, but it makes sense that someone started the children’s choir program. A church founded in 1829 didn’t launch with a weekly schedule broken up into activities for every demographic. Someone had to start these things. My great nieces are in the children’s choirs at First Baptist now. So Betty Doss, whoever she may have been, is in their cloud of witnesses.
I didn’t know Sarah’s parents were members of First Baptist. I didn’t know Jack’s parents came and went and came and stayed. I didn’t know any of them. But I’d have to say they’re in my cloud of witnesses – because of how their presence here affected my presence later on.
In the 1980s, my sister, Anne, was Helen’s colleague, before her move to Birmingham. Helen gave Anne tickets to the Living Christmas Tree, and I came with her to the performance. At her insistence, I might add. I liked it. But when Helen moved to Birmingham, we didn’t have a ticket source. So I got an idea that I could join the choir and get the tickets myself. I did not realize this at the time, but when I entered the church, I would be walking through a cloud of witnesses.
Photos: Sarah and Jack; Sarah and Jack, plus Sarah and Helen; Sarah and Helen with Jack’s parents and their two cousins; Sarah and Helen with Sarah’s parents; Sarah and Helen with triplets LeeHelen, Blair and Tyler.
“In the Choir Loft with Sarah and Jack” is part of a continuing series by Minnie Lamberth called People I Met at Church. Originally posted April 2013 at www.minnielamberth.com.