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After 37 Years, ‘Uncle J’ Semi-Retires to the South

Music Minister retires from Lewinsville Presbyterian Church

As minister of music for 37 years at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, J. Franklin Clark emphasized the “minister” more than the “music,” said a member of his congregation on Sunday afternoon.

She was standing in the festive atmosphere of a meeting room at the McLean Community Center decorated with four huge vases of red and yellow roses and helium balloons. Decidedly non-classical guitar and keyboard music by Shahin and Sepehr boomed from a sound system presided over by a DJ.

There were bottles of red and white wine, plates full of little sandwiches, and an air of expectancy in the room.

People of all kinds: babies, children, teenagers, parents, singles, young adults, and seniors with and without walkers gathered to honor a man who had honored them by teaching them how to worship through music, they said in many different ways.

These included comical expressions, such as the vocal stylings of graduates of Lewinsville’s Westminster Choir:

“Amazing J., how hard he tried, to teach a wretch like me,” they sang to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

“When I began, I squawked and screeched, and could not sing in key.”

That brought guffaws from Clark, a musical purist whose prestige tag on his Subaru reads “J. Bach.”

Most children in the church, include those who have grown up, call him “Uncle J,” he said.

“I have a real mission for children and teenagers,” Clark said later. “The most moving thing was when they called up all the former Westminster choir members, and they more than filled those bleachers. Just seeing them there, and knowing you touched that many lives. They came from as far away as California and Maine. From all over the country, they flew” to Washington for Clark’s farewell celebration.

“I have seen a lot of kids through crises,” he said. “We have such good kids, but things just happen to them. They know I am very open. They can tell me just about anything in confidence, and it goes to my grave.”

That trust was validated in testimony from Clark’s former choir members, most of them now grown up.

“He taught us to witness without being preachy, or holier than thou,” said one former member of the choir.

“He is sensitive to the needs of teenagers and adults,” said Heather Summerville. Clark’s interest and attention kept her from suicide when she was a teenager, she said.

“He’s very visible to the children,” said Susan Bartram, whose daughter wept when she learned that Clark would be semi-retiring before she could sing in one of his eight choirs.

“He gives meaning to everything he’s involved in,” said Lindsay Trout, now a teacher at South Lakes High School, who has known Clark since she was 2.

“I’ve been in every one of his choirs and shows since I was a little kid,” she said.

“He was known all over for his organ mastery,” said Trout. “But you’d never know it because of the way he is.”

“YOU AND I WERE BOTH KIDS when we came here,” said Gary Pinder, Lewinsville’s minister for 36 years. He thanked Clark “for your strong faith, hope, and steadfast love.

“I am glad he finally feels I can make it on my own,” Pinder said.

After Clark was presented with a check for $38,300 to ease him into semi-retirement, he joked that he had kept notes from each trip by a church group that he attended.

“I appreciate this huge check,” he said. “But if you don’t want your name in the book I am writing, you will have to see me. For those of you who were trying to climb over the balcony in Orlando, would you see me?” he asked.

Clark opened two bags filled with T-shirts from church events over the last 37 years. “I don’t wear of lot of T-shirts,” he said, “but I keep everything.”

He showed shirts through the years, including one that read, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time, and annoys the pig.”

Former choir members re-enacted a J. Franklin Clark rehearsal, with Ward Huston playing the role of Clark as he chided choir members for missed rehearsals and for mispronouncing “Magnificat.”

“When J. goes to Druid Hills [Presbyterian Church in Atlanta], I can tell you for sure, those folks will not be able to pronounce ‘Magnificat,’” Huston said.

“He did a wonderful job of imitating how I run a rehearsal,” said Clark. “I run a pretty tight ship.

“If [choir members] come after work for a two-hour rehearsal, you’ve got to make it worth their time,” he said.

“I am a stickler for diction. We sing in any language, even a lot of Latin. They know I won’t let one of them pass by” with a mispronunciation, he said.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have fun.

“We always take a break to celebrate ... all joys and concerns,” said Clark. “The choir has become its own support group.”

Clark is leaving to become the minister of music at Druid Hills Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, where he will have part-time status with only one 11 a.m. service and one adult choir.

At Lewinsville, he gets up at 5 a.m. on Sundays to make the early service. Because Lewinsville’s music programs have eight choirs with 150 participants out of 800 church members, “I knew the position at Lewinsville could never be part-time,” Clark said.

He came to Lewinsville in 1966 after earning a master’s degree in organ at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

“ I have played organ since I was 14,” Clark said. “I am 64: I have been doing this for 50 years.”

Does he ever get tired of playing the organ?

“Never ever,” said Clark, an Episcopalian who prefers its “high church” liturgical tradition, including burning incense.

But “Lewinsville is a very liturgical church,” he said. “We chant and sing and carry on all the time.”

Accompanying Clark at the three-hour reception was his partner of 40 years, Richard Jarvis. Clark said their relationship has been transparent within the church “almost from the beginning.

“It was the best-kept, or the worst-kept, ‘secret’ in the church,” he said.

“I am of the generation that [either] you accept me, or you don’t,” he said. “These parents have trusted me with their children, all these years.”