Organist celebrates 50 years at Southside Baptist

Organist celebrates 50 years at Southside Baptist
Phil Mattox, Gwen Hernandez, James Freeman, Bette Mattox, Tony Cruz, Andrew Clarke, and Daniel Francabandiero

In 1967, when Bette Mattox first became the organist at Southside Baptist Church, the Vietnam War was in full swing, the average price of a house was $14,250, salaries ranged around $7,300 a year, the price of gas was 33 cents a gallon, automobiles cost about $3,750, and movie tickets were $1.25.

Since then, much has changed both at Southside Baptist and in our culture, yet one thing remains constant: Mattox continues to play for the church each Sunday, 50 years later.

To commemorate her half century of service to the Baptist church on San Marco Square, musicians across the region came together Nov. 5 to perform a special tribute in Mattox’s honor and to celebrate the rededication of the church’s recently refurbished pipe organ.

“Bette’s been a real treasure. She’s outlasted every staff member, past ministers of music and anybody else,” said Rev. Dr. Gary Lee Webber, Southside Baptist’s senior pastor. “She has the longest tenure of anybody in the church. She started when she was 18, and she’s done an outstanding job leading in worship and playing the organ for generations,” he continued. 

“She played for my wedding 25 years ago, as well as for my mother’s funeral, and my ordination service. She even played the Sunday I was baptized when I was nine years old. I told her, ‘you have played the score for the movie of my life,’ because at every significant event, she has played the music. She really is a delightful person.”

For Mattox, whose primary career consisted of teaching in public schools in Duval and Clay Counties for over 30 years, serving as a church organist is a part-time job and one she does not intend to relinquish in the near future.

“I have no plans to retire,” said Mattox. “Everyone here knows we have an old farmhouse in North Carolina and that one day we will move up there, but it won’t be any time soon. I need to be around to play this wonderful instrument for a while.”

The Sunday evening concert, which took place in the church sanctuary, consisted of a sampling of piano, organ, and harpsichord music, both modern and religious, with selections especially chosen to show of the range of Southside Baptist’s newly restored pipe organ.

Purchased 53 years ago for $41,000 – a special donation given by church members Marion Harlan Whatley and Brown L. Whatley of San Marco – the 11,734-pipe organ, which includes 28 ranks and 33 stops, recently underwent a $170,000 restoration.

“It is now in better-than-new condition, and if it were purchased new today it would cost well over $600,000,” said Bob Rusczyk, a church organ consultant from Palm Harbor, Florida, who attended the event.

A Baymeadows resident, Mattox grew up in a musical family. Her grandfather, Harry Potter, owned Potter’s Home of Music and performed in a jazz band at the Mayflower Hotel. Her grandmother, Edna Potter, played piano and was a sheet music demonstrator at May Cohens Department Store. Meanwhile, her mother, Harriet Potter Bishop, was a violinist, her Aunt Bettie Potter Schubert played cello with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra in California, and her Uncle Bill Potter, was a clarinetist for the Jacksonville Symphony. Mattox’s sister, Susan Bishop York, is vocalist and makes a living singing jingles for commercials in San Diego, California.

“Everybody in my family had to play something,” Mattox said.

A piano student of Genevieve McMurray’s since she was five years old, Mattox took up the organ the summer after she graduated from Englewood High School at age 16. During that time, she played organ as a substitute at two other area Baptist churches before landing the job as full-time organist in San Marco.

During her tenure at Southside Baptist, she has trained five pastors and 17 music directors. In addition to playing at church, Mattox has also served as the organist for music week at Ridgecrest, a Baptist Assembly ground in North Carolina, and is a member of the American Guild of Organists (AGO).

Attending college on an oboe scholarship, Mattox majored in elementary education and minored in organ during her undergraduate years at Jacksonville University. Mattox received a master’s degree in reading and library science at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where she also studied organ with Dr. Ramona Beard, a prominent music professor.

After graduation, Mattox spent 20 of her 35 years in education as a fourth-grade teacher in Duval and Clay Counties. She served her final 15 years as a librarian at San Jose Elementary before retiring in 2012.

During the November concert, Mattox performed on both harpsichord and organ. Joining her on the stage in the church sanctuary were Andrew Clarke, formerly of Riverside Presbyterian Church and currently organist of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in San Marco, Tony Cruz, cantor and organist at St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Marco, Daniel Francabandiero, formerly organist and choirmaster at Riverside Park United Methodist Church, James Freeman of Georgia, organist of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Georgia, and Gwen Hernandez, music associate and pianist at Southside Baptist Church.

Before the concert’s final act, Hernandez surprised Mattox by presenting her with an original work the church had commissioned especially for her by her favorite composer, Paul Halley. Entitled “God in Three Persons: A Fantasia on Nicaea,” the composition is based on the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy,” one of Mattox’s favorites. The new piece was performed for the first time by Clarke as the concert’s surprise second finale.

“The church was so gracious and nice to me, I’m just walking on air,” said Mattox, adding that receiving the gift of Halley’s new score “just blew me away. What an honor. It is a lovely piece. I tried playing it once I got home. It’s difficult. It will require some work, but it will be worth it,” she said.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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