You’ve probably never heard of Geffray Mynshul, but you have almost certainly heard a phrase he wrote nearly 400 years ago: “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
You’ve probably also heard the antidote to that shortcoming: “Do one thing, and do it well.” The perfect illustration of this bit of wisdom is the life of Bill Brocklebank. Throughout his life, he concentrated on creating beautiful music.
Bill was born in Olean, New York, and grew up in Coudersport, Pennsylvania. He started taking piano lessons when he was six or seven, and played saxophone in an excellent high school band. Of course, lots of kids do those things. But Bill had a unique opportunity to develop his passion for music. His parents got him unlimited access to the organ in the auditorium of the Scottish Rite Consistory in Coudersport.
“The Consistory was open to me 24 hours a day,” he said. “I could only turn on a few lights. The halls were dark, so I learned to whistle while I walked from outside to the console.”
He wasn’t allowed to take anyone else into the Consistory, but it wasn’t long before many others could hear how well he taught himself to play that organ.
“ I did radio broadcasts from the Consistory on Sunday afternoons in the summer times over local radio station. There were no audiences in the auditorium, only technicians.”
When he was about sixteen years old, he started playing organ for services at the at the First Presbyterian Church in Coudersport.
Bill wanted pursue a career in music after high school. But his father, who was a hard-working door-to-door clothing salesman, didn’t share his vision.
“Dad left home Monday mornings and came home Friday nights,” Bill said. “His territory included seven counties in Pennsylvania and one in New York. He would go into homes with both arms loaded with samples and people would order from catalogs.”
Bill’s father wanted him to pursue what he believed to be a more practical career.
“My father was bound and determined that I was going to get a business degree from Penn State. And I was bound and determined that I was going to become a music teacher. One night I told my parents that I was going to go to study music at Westchester State Teachers, because my bandmaster had been from there.”
They reached a compromise.
“ My father said, ‘If you’re going to be a music teacher, you’re going to Mansfield State Teachers College because I sell merchandise to a lot of those professors, and you’re going to take the merchandise over to them.’”
In 1956, Bill became the organist and choir director at the Consistory in Coudersport. A year later he founded the choir for the Consistory’s Passion Play choir.
“At one time that choir consisted of 100 voices,” Bill said. “They just had their 51st year of doing the play. We used to do four sold-out performances in two weekends. Now they do it once on a Saturday.”
After graduating from college in 1957, Bill got a job teaching in the junior high school in State College. During that time, he pursued his Master’s Degree at Penn State, which he was awarded in 1961.
One of his fellow Masters Degree candidates was Alice Kingsley.
Alice was born in Erie, PA, and grew up in the Erie area. Her family moved frequently among rented homes in Erie, Wesleyville, and Harborcreek.
“In Harborcreek we had a little land,” she said. “We raised chickens, had fruit trees, did our own canning, pretty much raised as much of our own food as we could. I remember my dad catching a chicken and getting ready to cut its head off. I said, ‘Oh Dad, don’t do that.’ He said, “Would you please get out of here? Don’t you think this is hard enough for me?’ I never bothered him again when he was killing a chicken.”
Like Bill, she started music lessons when she was very young.
“My mother had always wanted to be a pianist,” Alice said, “so she put me on the piano bench when I was three. I could read music before I could read words. I had my first piano teacher at the age of five.”
When she graduated from Erie Academy High School in 1948, she wanted to study foreign languages. But her mother pressured her into continuing her music education in St. Louis, Missouri.
“I hated it out there,” she said. “I was very homesick. My mother let me come back and take music at Westminster.”
After graduating in 1952, she taught elementary music in Harborcreek for three years. Then she moved down this way to teach at Hickory High School. Four years later, she went back to teach second grade at Harborcreek. She went to Penn State during the summers to get her Master’s Degree in music. There she met Bill Brocklebank. They got married in 1961 in State College.
Bill was still teaching junior high school in State College, but wanted to teach senior high vocal music. He was happy to accept a position in Bradford because it was near Coudersport.
“While I was in Bradford, I knew that the music system in Warren, PA, was very, very good. Their a cappella choir was tremendous. One of my Mansfield fraternity brothers was teaching in Warren. He called one day and said, ‘if you want this high school choir, you will have to come now and teach junior high general music until the high school man retires.’”
Warren, he discovered, was an excellent town for music.
“There was a big barbershop chorus,” he said, “so the boys in Warren were never afraid to sing because they always saw their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers singing.”
When Bill moved up to senior high school, he became very, very busy.
“At one time I was teaching five choirs a day, five days a week. Now I look back and it was all worth it. The a cappella choir even to this day is very, very good.”
His preparation for this work load took up a major part of his summers.
“During June I stayed away from school work and church work,” he said. “In July I had to start looking at music for all the school choirs and church choirs. That took up July and August.”
As an incentive for his a cappella choir students, he organized trips during which they performed in various venues. They traveled to England, Scotland, Germany, Austria, Quebec, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and in New York City. The choir sang Silent Night in the chapel in Oberndorf, Austria, where Franz Gruber, its composer, first sang it with the chapel choir in 1818.
Bill continued at the Consistory in Coudersport as organist, choir director, and music director for the Passion Plays. In 1985, he was coronated a 33rd degree Scottish Rite for his many years as organist and choir master at the consistory. In 1986, he was also presented with Mansfield University’s very first Distinguished Educator Award. That same year, he was selected as one of the ten finalists for the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Teacher of the Year Award.
As if his teaching and consistory service weren’t enough to keep him busy, he served as organist and choir directors in various churches.
“At the First Methodist Church in Warren, PA, we did Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem with orchestra, choir, and soloist for a Good Friday. There was standing room only in that large church.”
The Brocklebanks’ son Paul was born in 1963, and their daughter LuEllen in 1966. When LuEllen was five years old, she developed diabetes.
“She lived with that for about 20 years until her kidneys failed,” Alice said. “Bill gave her one of his, and it lasted for 12 years, which was good for that time. Now she lives in Warren because she loves it there. She’s waiting for another kidney transplant through UPMC.”
After Paul earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Westminster College, he got a job at Liberty Mutual, then worked for a large insurance company in Pittsburgh. He studied at Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon, adding a law degree to his credentials. He, his wife Jerilyn, and their two sons, Paul Jr. and John, now live in Charlotte, NC.
While her kids were growing up, Alice gave private piano lessons in her home, and was a choir director and organist at a Lutheran church in Warren, PA.
Since Bill retired from teaching in 1988, the Brocklebanks have lived in New Wilmington. Alice has been serving as substitute organist in many churches in Mercer and Lawrence County. Bill served as organist in the New Wilmington Presbyterian Church for 6 years, then in Christ Lutheran Church in Sharon for 14 years.
During this time, Bill also enjoyed working at the Apple Castle.
“I could remember most of the customers’ names,” he said. “That blew their minds.”
In his later years, Bill developed Parkinson’s Disease, which caused him to retire from the Apple Castle last year, and from music on March 1, 2009. But he can still give vent to his passion for music and his mastery of it by playing the very large theater organ he has in his living room – one thing that he does very, very well indeed.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010