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Church organist ‘feels God’s pleasure’ in service


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FAMILY Ken Yates is surrounded by his brother, Tommy, brother-in-law, Erik Retten, sister, Kay Retten, nephew, William Yates , and sister-in-law, Beth Yates.

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BONIFAY (FBW)—Ken Yates, a member of First Baptist Church in Bonifay, has spent a lifetime educating and inspiring residents of his hometown. His influence as an educator and musician reaches far beyond the Panhandle city where he continues to minister in his church and in his community.

Yates retired in 1995 after 30 years with the Holmes County School System. Working in public schools was his “calling from God,” he said.

The Florida State University graduate taught for one year before being named principal of Poplar Springs High School, when he was not much older than the students.

“One of my best friends was a senior in high school there when I was principal,” Yates said. “He’s still a good friend.”

After stints as high school and elementary curriculum supervisor, Yates was principal of Bonifay Elementary School 19 years. He counts former students and faculty members among his friends, and can readily name students active in churches all across the Panhandle with whom he still maintains contact.

Courtesy photo


While he was building a career as a public school educator, Yates remained faithful to the job he has held since he was 14. First Baptist Church in Bonifay recently honored him on his 55th anniversary as church organist.

Though he had been in Sunday School and Church Training “as an attender,” it was after he became a Christian at 14, that God focused his love for music on a love for church music. “Then the Lord spoke, and I have never looked back.”

Professing a love for “anything melodious,” Yates’ early favorites were the Statesmen and Blackwood Brothers quartets. In fact, he and three brothers from the Kent family “drove around on Sunday afternoons singing their songs,” he said. The weather dictated whether the car windows were up or down, but, he said, “it didn’t matter, we were in the country.”

Yates began on a Wurlitzer electronic organ. He and pianist Diane Williams Smith, then 17, accompanied Sunday evening worship services.

“I am just glad that this was a church that was willing to give a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old the opportunity to play during worship,” he said.

In the mid-60’s, S.E. Norwood, while servicing the Wurlitzer, mentioned to the young organist that a church was being razed that contained a pipe organ. He asked if First Baptist would like to buy it.

“I had no authority to answer, so I went to see Mr. Willett, our church treasurer. He told me that maybe with the church budget and with a couple of donors, we could manage $1,000,” Yates remembered.

Yates offered the contractor tearing down the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church in Pensacola $400, and he accepted the offer. The organ’s 16 ranks and extensions, its two-manual console and pedals were dismantled and moved to Bonifay. Volunteers transported the pieces in pickup trucks, and they were “housed all over town” while First Baptist was building a new sanctuary, he said.

?Holmes Co. Advertiser dated October 16, 1969.” style=””>

 Holmes Co. Advertiser dated October 16, 1969.

The church sanctuary, built to accommodate the pipe organ, was completed in 1969; the building and the organ are still used anytime the church gathers for worship. Although the organ is “old and slow,” Yates has learned to manage the quirks of the Pilcher-built instrument, some of whose pipes may date back to the Civil War.

“It has never failed to play a single service since then. It is a part of the family,” he said.

Even though generations of First Baptist members have heard thousands of solos played for preludes, offertories and postludes, Yates said his favorite part of the job is accompanying vocal music, especially “big choral anthems.” His favorites include “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name,” “Jesus, What a Mighty Name,” and “An Expression of Gratitude.”

“These really bring the love and power of God into my spirit,” he said.

For the past 25 years Yates has teamed with Minister of Music David Lauen and his wife, pianist Christine Lauen. They were among the scores who knew about Yates’ anniversary celebration who managed to keep it a secret. Yates’ younger brother and sister and their children were there for the occasion.

In honoring Yates on his anni­versary, First Baptist Pastor Shelly Chandler told the crowd, “When he plays that organ, I know he feels God’s pleasure.”

The 69-year-old has never married, though he said he “had pretty good runs at it a couple of times.” He is active in several ministries of the church and in the community, while maintaining “super-close” friendships all over the Panhandle. He helps residents of a nursing home play games every Tuesday, a practice he began when his late mother was a resident. He is a member of the hospital auxiliary, although he is quick to say he wears beige instead of pink. Yates is a member of the Chipola Community College board, and has sung with the Florida Baptist Singing Men.

In keeping with his career in education, Yates teaches a men’s Sunday School class at church, then transports the same lesson to Holmes County Correctional Institution on Thursday evening, and to the institution’s work camp on Monday. At present, he is working to update and refurbish a church-owned home for visiting missionaries.

“Few people in the church have the level of commitment—laity or clergy—that Ken does,” Chandler said. “There are many nights when I am home sleeping like a baby and Ken’s here at the church building fixing something.”

“I don’t believe in 24-hour days,” Yates said. “I am just a willing person who loves what I do.”