Dr. Ralph Powell died earlier this morning. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor about six weeks ago.
I met him in May, when he kindly agreed to let me talk about playing trumpet. I hope someone plays the trumpet for him at his funeral.
Here’s the story:
As a pastor and a professor, Ralph Powell’s voice could challenge, persuade and reassure listeners.
So it would have been a terrible thing if that powerful instrument had been lost permanently during his recent radiation treatment for throat cancer.
But Powell is speaking again, and along with that gift comes the return of another instrument.
Once again on Sunday mornings, the congregation at Trinity Baptist Church sings four or five hymns with Powell accompanying them on the trumpet, as he has for many years.
“It’s just such a blessing for the church,” says Trinity Baptist’s pastor, the Rev. Kirby Wilcoxson, “because of the quality of Ralph’s life and also the quality of his musicianship.
“Over the three years that I’ve been here, Ralph and I have had a couple conversations, and he’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s time for me to stop playing. I can’t play like I used to.’ But we worship better because Ralph is there, helping to lead us.”
Powell, who grew up in New York City, played so well that he considered becoming a professional musician at one point.
But as Ardice Powell, his wife of 33 years, says, “You became less and less concerned about music and more and more concerned about ministry.”
Ralph Powell, 96, taught for 31 years at what then was known as North American Baptist Seminary, leading classes in systematic theology and the philosophy of religion.
But in his 20s, he won a scholarship to play with the New York Philharmonic Symphony. For three years, he took lessons from a noted trumpet player named Max Schlossberg. Ralph Powell still has trumpet drills written in Schlossberg’s hand.
He had started playing trumpet as a boy when a neighbor’s son began lessons. When he received the scholarship — the announcement came in a simple sentence scrawled on the back of a penny postcard — Ralph Powell and his mother went to famed trumpet maker Vincent Bach to buy a new instrument.
It is the trumpet Ralph Powell still uses today.
“Vincent Bach said the only reason he gave me this trumpet was because I had a scholarship with the New York Philharmonic Symphony,” he says, the middle fingers of his right hand resting on the trumpet’s valves.
Ralph Powell taught music to fellow seminary students when he moved to Chicago in the 1930s.
The trumpet and the sound it makes always have been a comfort to him.
Just when he needed that comfort the most, in the aftermath of his cancer diagnosis last year, Ralph Powell lost it. The two-month-long radiation treatments on his throat left him with little voice and, inelegantly, little of the spit a trumpet player needs.
He sips on a nearby glass of water to keep his throat lubricated while speaking and playing.
Ever modest, Ralph Powell deprecates his playing skills today. He doubts he’ll ever play another solo, but the sound of his trumpet braces the hymn-singing at Trinity Baptist once again.
“They say that it helps the congregation sing,” he says, quoting Trinity Baptist members. “It gives it a lift.”
“His playing is still better than most, because of who he is and what he adds to the services.”