Richard Waggoner was always looking for a church organ to play, even when vacationing in Europe.
Waggoner, the minister of music at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church for more than 30 years, was ready with a song and eager to share his love of music with others, family members and acquaintances said. He played the organ at the church for countless services and special ceremonies, led the church choirs and encouraged aspiring musicians among the congregation.
He died April 10 of heart failure, a week shy of his 90th birthday.
Waggoner’s love for music started with piano in his hometown of Popejoy, Iowa. A love for church music led him to the organ. He studied at Morningside College and the University of Colorado Boulder before completing a doctoral degree in music at the University of Minnesota. He played professionally at churches in Camden, Ark., and New Orleans, then came to Minneapolis.
Music even played into Waggoner’s time in the military during the Korean War. He was at basic training preparing for combat when, at the last minute, he was chosen to play clarinet for the Army Band and piano for an officers’ club in Japan.
“Music literally saved his life,” said Richard’s son Andrew Waggoner, an Academy Award-winning composer.
At Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, Waggoner was not content with simple hymns, said Larry Duncan, a choir member and membership secretary at the church. The choirs performed a variety of music, from Renaissance and Baroque pieces to avant-garde European music and even a jazz mass. He would commission new works from lesser-known composers — including some, such as Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus, who went on to prominent careers — to give them a boost.
One of Waggoner’s proudest moments was bringing Duke Ellington to Minnesota to perform his “Sacred Concert,” Andrew Waggoner said. Both nights, the church was packed and Waggoner played organ during the concert.
Andrew Waggoner remembers his father marking up his sheet music scores before rehearsals and always being on the phone with musicians and members of the choir. He said his father lived his faith and never made a big show out of it.
“I used to get out of Sunday school to turn the pages for my father while he played,” he said. “I probably took more advantage of that than I should have.”
The Rev. Sally Johnson, who worked with Waggoner at the church, said he offered musical talent and youthful energy. At Halloween, he would create a string maze for the children’s choir, and one year he appeared as the Hunchback of Notre Dame for a concert with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
“There are many young musicians who have come out of this church,” said Johnson, minister of worship and spiritual formation. “He shaped them, mentored them and inspired them.”
Waggoner’s other passions included history, traveling and being outdoors, especially canoeing. He and his wife, Phyllis Waggoner, would stop at every museum and cathedral they stumbled upon while traveling in Europe.
But the organ was his enduring love.
“He was still coming here every week and rehearsing music until just the last several months,” Johnson said.
Besides his wife, Waggoner is survived by sons Richard of Atlanta, Mark of Warsaw, Poland, and Andrew of Paris; five grandchildren; three step-grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Services have been held.
Jeyca Maldonado-Medina is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.