Ed Bruenjes was planning his expert handyman work around his daughter and son-in-law’s home in Lansing, Michigan, last week. He is one who for decades has installed floors, expanded rooms and built porches and patios full-time.
But most people in Columbus, where he has lived since moving from Bloomington in 1988, know him for his masterful hands on the Asbury United Methodist Church organ, where he has built a strong foundation with traditional worshippers in a part-time post — for half a century.
He has no foreseeable plans of retiring. Which explains his next statement, delivered with equal measures of dry wit and serious emphasis.
“I’m very careful around my power saws,” the 68-year-old Bruenjes said.
And to that, Asbury members — and community members who joyfully rely on his musical gifts — say praise the Lord. In today’s Christian church world, where many congregations have gone fully pop-contemporary, just finding thriving services with organ is fairly significant enough. Finding them with a keyboardist who began when Richard Nixon was president, and then has remained in the exact same place, is an altogether other matter.
That explains why Asbury is honoring Bruenjes at a special gathering at 2 p.m Sunday at the church, 1751 27th St. in Columbus. The event will begin with a video interview with Bruenjes, followed by his 35-minute recital of some of his favorite compositions, including at least two unique arrangement of the classic “Jesus Loves Me” — one for piano and one for organ.
“Some days, when I’m away from a mirror, I still feel young and sprightly,” he said. “But if I’m brushing my teeth or something, I’ll look up at my reflection at the sink and think, ‘Who is that old man looking back at me?’”
When he began at Asbury after his Indiana University Jacobs School of Music instructor Oswald Ragatz suggested he audition for the role, he was a lifelong Lutheran.
“I had never been to a United Methodist church in my life,” he said.
Yet, he initially began playing organ for services at a Lutheran church in the St. Louis, Missouri, area where he was raised — at age 11. He also began playing as an elementary school classroom accompanist for his fourth-grade singing peers — after he critiqued his teacher’s playing and she irritatedly asked, “You think you can do better?”
“I was,” he said simply, “a fast learner.”
Columbus resident Candy Spiker has worked with Bruenjes at Asbury, where she has sung in the choir for more than 30 years under his leadership, and also has performed solos at church with Bruenjes as the accompanist. She also works with him with the local Lasting Impressions senior musical troupe, which Bruenjes serves as musical director.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of music you might put in front of him,” Spiker said. “He plays it like a polished pro the first time through. His overall skill level is something that I really appreciate.”
He’s aware that others appreciate his loyalty in an age of the sometimes church-hopping not-so-faithful. He explained his allegiance simply.
“It’s probably because of all the connections that I’ve made with people,” Bruenjes said. “To me, sharing love with friends and family are the reason why we’re put on earth.
“And these people at Asbury are so great to work with. I’ve just never felt the pull to move away.”
When he leaves town for vacations away from Columbus but near friends or relatives, he sometimes serves as a fill-in, guest organist at a church or two, including his hometown of Girard, Kansas. He also once walked into a Minnesota church before a service maybe 20 years ago while on vacation, offered to play for their worship when he saw no one at the organ, and actually did so.
Longtime Asbury member Chuck VanNatta, who also led the choir for 40 years, was on the committee that hired Bruenjes 50 years ago.
“One of the reasons that we had such great choirs (in my time) was because of Ed’s great accompaniment,” VanNatta said. “He always would clearly play the four voice parts during rehearsals to help the singers learn their parts.”
The bulk of his income has come from work ranging from private music lessons to repairing, restoring and installing pipe organs, besides his home handyman and remodeling business, mainly for Asbury members.
“I refuse to do plumbing — because I don’t want to make five and six repeated trips to the hardware store,” he said. “Plumbers definitely are worth it.”
When prodded only a little, he acknowledged that a different faucet likely will flow Sunday.
“Oh, I’m like a kid with emotion,” he said. “I’d better have a box of tissues near me.”
About the organist
Age: 68. He turns 69 on Sept. 13.
Hometown: Born in Girard, Kansas. Raised in St. Louis.
In Columbus since: 1988. Commuted from Bloomington for 15 years before then.
Best-known role: Organist at Asbury United Methodist Church since 1973. Also handbell choir director.
Other community involvement: Music director and accompanist for senior musical troupe The Lasting Impressions; frequently an accompanist through the years for Mill Race Theatre Company productions; board member for the new Asbury Conservatory; also has done organ installation and restoration work for years; and has done private music lessons; current president of the Lincoln Village Cooperative in Columbus.