Music braided through Velma Warder's life for 91 years.
The Minneapolis native and University of Minnesota journalism and education major made a living teaching first- and third-graders at Kenwood, Cooper and Andersen elementary schools for 26 years.
But many knew the classically trained pianist and pipe organist best for bringing music to church choirs, recitals and theater productions across the Twin Cities.
Warder, who studied at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis under greats such as organist Harvey Gustafson, had range. Chopin. Brahms. Gospel. Ragtime. Florence Price. Carol Antrom. Velma mastered them all.
She played for the Norwegian Nina Grieg Singers and the musical theater ensemble the Accents. For 60 years, she commanded the pipe organs and pianos at churches across the metro. She grew up bringing music to Zion Baptist Church in north Minneapolis. She spent 23 years as the organist at Temple Baptist and 26 more as the organist at River Hills United Methodist in Burnsville before retiring in 2010 to accompany her daughter, a professional vocalist.
But the Twin Cities are quieter these days.
Warder was organizing the music for a Christmas program at the Gramercy Park Co-op — a retirement community where she and William, her husband of 71 years, lived — when she suffered a disabling heart attack. She died March 6.
At barely 5 feet tall, "she was petite but powerful. She was a little, tiny woman and just always on the go. Just busy with her music and with church," her daughter Cheryl said.
Velma's son Paul is still amazed at her. "I look at that pipe organ. You have the three or four levels of keys and then the foot pedals. That was like another whole keyboard for her feet and she could work those like magic."
Her love of the organ ran deep. She always owned a piano but for decades had to dash to church to get her fingers on an organ. Finally, in the 1990s, she bought her own.
In 2015, when Velma and William moved from their south Minneapolis bungalow of 57 years into a condo, the piano and organ moved right in along with them. The piano got the living room. The organ got its own bedroom.
William, a Kansas transplant who met Velma at church and became her prom date in 1948 (and husband in 1951), was a bass/baritone. The two made music together at church and at home, where they steeped their children in music lessons, recitals and concerts. Julie played flute. Paul played trumpet. Cheryl still plays piano and sings. Velma recorded every performance.
At Christmas parties, Velma (despite protests and rolled eyes) made her kids sing "The 12 Days of Christmas." Through the years, she commanded the piano while William belted out the spirituals they'd perform later that day at church or at the Gramercy Park Co-op.
"That's my favorite memory," Paul said of their practicing.
For Cheryl, it's her mom in motion: Velma playing on the floor with her great grandkids, building Legos, blowing bubbles and "trying to understand what they were doing with these video games," Cheryl said. "She was happy as a lark when surrounded by family. She was very involved. She didn't just sit back."
She never did.
Velma swam into her 80s, did yoga, road a stationary bike and knocked back a mystery novel or history book every couple of weeks. She took enough pictures to fill 50 photo albums. And for years, she earned side money writing short stories for Reader's Digest, the Upper Room, Journal of Church Music and other periodicals. Last month, she sent her manuscript about Juneteenth to a publisher.
"I always felt proud that she could do all of that," Paul said. "She [stayed busy] up to the very end."
Warder is survived by William; brother Wallace; children Cheryl, Julie and Paul; grandson Kellen; and great-grandchildren. Services have been held.