We always believed that Kenneth Peterson would live forever and that he would pass into the heavens with his long, thin fingers on the keys of an organ.
Ken passed officially through the golden gates Monday afternoon, age 99, listening to his own organ music. He would have smugly smiled, too, at the eulogy of the minister.
I am told he played organ at 23,000 funerals. He buried the equivalent of a small city (example, Muscatine, 22,886). Imagine, walking into heaven and 23,000 people looking up and saying, Theres Ken Peterson. He played at my funeral, said the Rev. Richard Pokora, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bettendorf.
It may have been a record; only St. Peter will know.
Shelly Heil, who shared the Redeemer organ bench with Ken for many years, came to Bettendorf from her home in Indianapolis to play for his funeral.
I played only hymns composed by Ken, she says. He was not only a wonderful musician, but a fine composer.
A starched white shirt was Kens mainstay when he played at every one of his 23,000 funerals. I went to his apartment to get one of his white shirts and dark blue suits for the funeral, said Henry Runge of Runge Mortuary in Davenport, which handled arrangements. There were only white shirts.
THE LAST TIME Ken sat down for an interview was in 2010. We visited in the cramped organ room at Runge, where he took a leather book from his vest pocket and penciled in his 22,480th funeral. He said, Im a little wobbly, but when they want a real organ not a contemporary recording they call on me. I intend to make 23,000.
Our visit that day was memorable. He talked forthrightly about the shift in funeral protocol and funeral music. I will never play rock, he said, somberly. But he brightened to tell how he has played Beer Barrel Polka.
On the day of our visit, he was pleased to have a break in his organ music when someone came forth to play the harmonica.
FEW COULD BELIEVE he was the organist at the 1931 funeral of Bix Beiderbecke, our legendary golden boy.
Only wealthy, well-known people were there. I believe I played that old Presbyterian favorite, Rock of Ages. For sending Bix into the heavens of jazz, Ken says he was paid $2.50.
That was about par for the era when there were 10 funeral homes in Davenport. Ken once played for six funerals in one day.
I did it all, he said. I would play the organ while singing, What a Friend We Have In Jesus. I quit singing because I was never sure what was going to come out.
Ken tended to be agreeable to most requests. Long ago, funerals were sometimes held in the family home.
I played hymns on the family piano that was usually out of tune. When the family left for the cemetery, I stayed behind to fold up the chairs and run the vacuum cleaner.
Henry Runge calls Kenneth Peterson one of the most remarkable people hes ever known.
When Ken fully retired 18 months or so ago, he turned over a complete log of the songs he played for every single funeral at our place. Then, if someone wants the same hymn at their funeral that was played for great-grandma, we have it on file.
Gerri, could you ask Henry Runge for a list of the songs Mr. Peterson played at the Bix funeral? Thanks.