Helen Maksymicz plays a piece at the Holy Trinity Evangelical Church on Gansevoort Street in Little Falls.
by Dave Warner
Helen Maksymicz has reached a milestone this summer that most people never reach. She is celebrating her 64th anniversary as a church organist.
Maksymicz was born in Little Falls and started piano lessons at the age of four and a half before she even started school. “My mother heard of this teacher here named Mrs. Eckler. She was the organist at the Presbyterian Church and taught piano lessons in the chapel and at her home. I couldn’t even hit the floor with my feet when I started.”
Her mother used to walk her up to the church every week for her lesson, and she says she was scared walking up to the huge wooden doors. “To me, they were about 50 feet high.”
She said that she loved it as a child, and would get a new piece to learn each week because she picked things up so quickly. “My mother would sit and crochet while I took my lesson. Later on, she said that she was sorry that she hadn’t taken lessons right alongside me.”
Maksymicz said that she would practice every day after dinner. “My brother would make fun of me when I made mistakes. He started clarinet in school, so I had to put up with his playing as he did with mine. We were a typical brother and sister, we argued a lot, but I cried my eyes out when he went away to college in Missouri.”
There was a recital every year in the Presbyterian Church and she said, “I think I must have been about six or seven when I participated. I often think that it must have been terrible to sit in there and listen to those kids first starting to play. But then when I got up to playing 15-page pieces, I didn’t like listening to the beginners myself.”
Eckler would also take all of her students to Utica for a competition at Foutain Elms. “It was nice at first only playing a couple of songs, but after going for over 10 years and playing songs with 21-22 pages, it got to be a little too much,” she stated.
Her dad learned how to fix the piano because she would get mad when she couldn’t figure something out and would pound the keys and break them. “I think he had to fix about every key on the piano at some point.”
While she was in high school, she decided that she wanted to play trombone and be in the marching band, but after a while found out that the trombone case was a good book carrier as well. “The next thing I came home with was a pair of drum sticks and a drum block. My father just looked at me and said, ‘what next?'”
Maksymicz played in the marching band for a couple of years with the snare drum, but the piano was always first for her. But that didn’t stop her from trying the accordion and taking some lessons with that. “To this day, I play it now and then,” she stated.
She said that Mrs. Eckler had wanted her to enroll in the St. Louis School of Music when she was in third grade. “She had the idea that I would be very good, but money was tight and if it didn’t work out, it could not be refunded. Back in the ’40s, it was a lot of money to lose.”
Maksymicz started playing in the church when she was just 15. “I started at Christ Lutheran Church on Petrie Street.” She also started a choir there and played, saying “Between school and lessons it wasn’t easy, especially for my parents. When I started playing, lessons were $1.00 an hour, and at one point, Mrs. Eckler didn’t know how to tell my mom that she was raising the price to $1.50 a lesson.”
The costs added up when the organ lessons, piano lessons, and music books were all added in. So, Maksymicz decided that she would work for one year after graduation from high school before going to college for music.
However, she got a job at Griffiss AFB and loved it, so she didn’t go to college for music, but stayed at the base for 34 years. She said, “No matter where there was a party if there was a piano, I was at it.”
“I just kept going with music and about 10 or 15 years ago, I even started a Dixieland Band. I need to get that going again,” she said.
She also said that giving concerts and playing down at the Proctor Theater gave her the most joy. “I played at the Rome Capitol Theater too, but that was something, to play at a 3,700 seat auditorium at Proctors. I went down this year and had to tape it because of COVID.”
Maksymicz has gone on several cruises and says that she just likes to sit down and start playing the piano. “One time I was down in the lower level of a ship and there was a beautiful white grand piano there. I always took a book of music with me when I traveled, so I took it out and started playing.”
“All of a sudden there was all this clapping and I looked up this big spiral staircase that went up to the top of the ship and there were all these people sitting on those stairs,” she stated.
Maksymicz says out of all the kinds of music, easy listening is her favorite. “That’s what I play down on the theater organs, the oldies. That’s what I really like playing.”
She finished by saying, “I played the organ at Enea Funeral Home in Little Falls for a few years and at one time, played at Holy Family for Saturday’s 4 pm mass for two years. Anywhere there’s a pipe organ, I’m at home.”
There aren’t too many churches in the valley that she hasn’t played in, and she says that not too many students end up playing longer than their teacher. “Mrs. Eckler told me she played 49 years and I thought, Oh Lordy! Now as I look back, it doesn’t seem that long to me.”
“If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said.