On February 2, 2000, the life of a great Christian organist
came to an end. Esma Beth Clark, 74 years old, died after a prolonged struggle
with multiple sclerosis.
I was blessed to have studied with Esma Beth during my junior
high and senior high school years. I was also blessed to be the organist at the
First Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, during my last two years of high school
where Minister of Music G. Robert Downer encouraged me to audition for the
Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Esma Beth worked with me to prepare
the required audition material. After meeting the legendary Alexander McCurdy
and playing for him, he asked who was my teacher. I replied "Esma Beth
Clark." He then said, in that unforgettable timbre, "What a
Esma Beth was born February 20, 1925, in Nocona, Texas, to
Bascom E. and Beulah P. Anderson. She attended the University of Texas in
Austin and studied organ under E. William Doty. In 1946 she was the very first
student to graduate from that institution with a degree in organ! After
marrying Jimmy Clark, who would be her loving husband for 53 years, Esma
Beth studied under Palmer
Christian and Claire Coci at the University of Michigan.
In 1948 she began a part-time career at Austin's University
Presbyterian Church, a position she would hold for 45 years! She also served as
children's choir director, as well as the music director when needed. On her
retirement Sunday, October 31, 1993, Bruce Todd, then Mayor of Austin, declared
that special Sunday to be "Esma Beth Clark" day in Austin. The
session of the University Presbyterian Church voted her as Organist Emerita.
The Rev. Woody Berry said of Esma Beth, "You have made the organ sing. You
have led us with your heart. You have never seen your work as a job, but
instead, as a calling to serve God for 45 years."
Esma Beth's retirement was hastened by the loss of sight
brought on by multiple sclerosis, which she battled courageously until her
Gerre Hancock, Organist and Master of Choristers at St.
Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City, writes:
Esma Beth was far too modest to realize how profoundly much
she meant to legions of her fans and friends! Esma Beth was a musician of
legendary prowess and accomplishment, one about whom one heard first from her
fabled teacher, E. William Doty. How we admired her! Through the years, in her
humble and quiet way, she has encouraged countless other musicians of all ages
in pursuing their craft and art. Generous to a fault, Esma Beth heaped blessing
upon blessing on so many of us through her unfailing help.
As an undergraduate student at The University of Texas in
Austin, I got to know her and her devoted husband, Jimmy. They constituted an
extraordinary pair, living out their Christian lives of commitment with
exemplary dedication to their colleagues.
Our gratitude for Esma Beth only seemed to grow with each
passing year. We are deeply, deeply grateful for her and her life and her
example. All hail!
Betty R. Pursley, Minister of Music at the United Church of
Marco Island, Florida, writes of Esma Beth:
Her greatest gift to me was channeling my natural ability
and love for music into a methodical, disciplined approach. She was my role
model. Mrs. Clark's great devotion to both the church and her musical work were
very positive influences during my adolescence.
A service of Remembrance and Celebration was held on Sunday,
February 27, 2000, at the University Presbyterian Church, in Austin. The new
III/47 Garland Pipe Organ was used. The harp stop and the chimes were memorial
gifts given in Esma Beth's memory. Special piano music was played by William
Chapman Nyaho. The congregational hymns were "Holy, Holy, Holy"
(Nicaea), "Take My Life and Let It Be" (Hendon), and "To God Be
The Glory." Choral music included "How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling
Place" by Johannes Brahms; "Shall We Gather At The River"
arranged by Hal Hopson (Carroll Gonzo, choir director; Faythe Freese,
accompanist); "The Lord Bless You and Keep You" by Peter Lutkin
(directed by Cheryl Clark Crews, daughter); several secular choral selections
by the GBATTS (Getting Better All The Time Singers); and a hymn medley:
"Amazing Grace! How Sweet the Sound," "There's Something About
That Name," "Jesus Loves Me," and "All The Way My Savior
Leads Me" (Mary Ann Parker, soprano, and Carol Koock, accompanist). Organ
music was "Fugue in E-Flat," (St. Anne) by J.S. Bach; a choral
prelude on "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" featuring the memorial
harp stop and chimes punctuating Esma Beth's initials E, B, A, C;
"Unforgettable" by Irving Gordon; and "Toccata" from
Symphony No. 5 by Widor (David Spicer, organist).
The eulogy was given by the Rev. James P. Crews
(son-in-law), reflections and a blessing by the Rev. Jimmy Earl Clark (son),
and "the family says thanks" by Jeff Clark (son). Other participants
were the Rev. San Williams, Minister at the University Presbyterian Church; the
Rev. Larry Bethune, Minister of the University Baptist Church; cousin Rev. Dr.
Jase Jones, as well as local radio/television personality and family friend
Cactus Pryor. The capacity crowd gave a fitting tribute to the life of this
I, like Betty Pursley, can reflect on Esma Beth's
pedagogical skills, and two things stand out: her faith and commitment to
serving Jesus Christ through her music, which spilled over into her teaching, and her insistence that music must
be played with feeling.
Her death was on February 2, which is recognized by those
who follow the liturgical calendar as Candlemas, celebrating Christ as the true
Light of the world. What a fitting day for a Christian musician to enter
eternal life and to experience first hand, Christ the Light of the world!
Esma Beth Anderson Clark is survived by her husband, J.E.
"Jimmy" Clark; daughters, Cheryl Crews and husband, Jim, of Japan,
Kerre Shipp and husband, David, of Raleigh, North Carolina; sons, Jimmy E.
Clark and wife, Kay, of Bonham, Texas, Jeffrey B. Clark and wife, Teresa, of
Austin; brothers and sister-in-law, James E. Anderson and Julia of Arlington, Texas,
Thomas W. Anderson and Norma Jean of Austin, Texas, David E. Anderson and
Susanna of Bangor, Maine, and Kenneth D. Anderson and Linda of Houston; eight
grandchildren, Clark and Chris Crews, Lori and David Shipp Jr., Wesley and
Kelley Clark, Kevin and Jamie Clark.
Soli Deo Gloria! Her works do follow after her.
David Spicer is Minister of Music at the First Church of
Christ in Wethersfield, Connecticut and is a co-founder of the Albert
Schweitzer Organ Festival in the USA. He also is on the music faculty of
Central Connecticut State University, and is House Organist at
Hartford'sBushnell Memorial. He attended Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary
and The Curtis Institute of Music. Early musical instruction was from his
parents as well as from Florence Castle. His early instruction in organ was
from his father, David Spicer, Sr., Donald Firnhaber, Henri Pantillone, Eleanor
Page, and Esma Beth Clark.