Concordia Lutheran concert honors longtime organist
Music was a lifelong pursuit for Helen Frye Hankey of Superior.
At age 9, she began several years of private piano lessons, and a year later, she began to learn accordion from a member of the WEBC Radio Station orchestra. When she graduated from the former Central High School on Belknap Street, she started teaching at Braman Music in Superior. She performed popular music of the time with various bands in venues around Superior.
After she married Ken Hankey, the pair performed in restaurants and clubs in St. Petersburg, Fla., before returning to Superior, where they formed a small dance band sometimes billed as "Ken Hankey and his Dixienotes."
However, the performances Helen Frye Hankey is best known for were played at the pipe organ of Concordia Lutheran Church. A concert series performed at the church was named in her honor as a way for the congregation to show its appreciation for the woman who filled the church with song for six decades.
"When Helen could no longer play here, she didn't want any kind of party for retirement or anything," Concordia Pastor Michelle Rowell said. "So the worship and music committees went, 'What can we do that she'll accept?' And that's where the brainstorm of this concert series came from."
The free concert planned for 3-5 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at the church, 1708 John Ave., features piano students from the University of Wisconsin-Superior performing on the church's refurbished Steinway piano. Performers Phill Wilken, Zachary Grohn and Emily VerWay are all students of Hector Landa.
Rowell said while the concerts are free, the church does accept a freewill offering to support the series and give a little bit to the performers.
"We try to do two a year," Rowell said of the concert series.
Paul Hankey said his mother was able to attend the first concert in the series, but health issues will prevent her from attending the upcoming performance. Rowell plans to record the performance so Hankey can watch it at home.
Paul Hankey said he was 3 years old and attending Sunday school at the church when his mother sat down at the piano to play for students. She did that for two years when she got a call from the pastor, just before Christmas 1958, to be the organist at Concordia.
It's a role she filled for 58 years until poor eyesight prompted her to retire at age 93 in 2016.
Paul Hankey said his mother was very dedicated to her role as Concordia's organist.
"If you walked into our house — I remember this very well — she would have, you would find her purse," Paul Hankey said. "Then you would find her church bag. And you would find a bag with her organ shoes in it. She carried that around wherever she went."
One Christmas Eve, he remembered driving to Concordia early to see if the service would go on. A snowstorm had blown in and roads were not plowed. At the church, Hankey found Pastor Plaster snowblowing around the church so the service could continue as planned.
"My mother felt this very strong obligation," Paul said. "What is Christmas Eve without music? And I would say that was one of the biggest church services here ... a lot of people showed up. She never missed Christmas. She never missed a lot of Sundays, except after my dad died ... she took a leave."
Peter Quist, a member of the music committee, said he used to arrive at the church early when Helen Hankey was still performing there.
"I used to like to come early for the prelude," Quist told Hankey. "Your mom, she would play everything, not just Christian Songs."
Quist's mother, Irene, a pianist, was a friend and mentor to Helen Hankey, teaching Hankey on popular music.
"She could play a hymn in a nightclub someplace and you wouldn't know it was a hymn," Paul Hankey said of his mother. "She could improvise that and turn it into a Nat King Cole-type of arrangement."
For seven years, Ken and Helen Hankey performed in their band until Ken Hankey got too busy with the railroad, but giving up professional musical gigs didn't mean things slowed down at the Hankey home, which was "somewhat chaotic" because no one had a schedule, Paul Hankey said. With his father's on-call schedule with the railroad and his mother's various rehearsals and performances, including weddings, funerals and performing for the residents at the former St. Francis Home, schedules were always changing.
"My mother was sort of a juke box of old songs and hymns, and that is the truth ... We'll start taking and she'll say, 'There's a song like that Paul,' and she'll start humming the song," Hankey said.
"Music is the universal language that speaks to our hearts," Helen Hankey said.