Organist shares his gift for seven decades

In a world that is rapidly changing, there has been one constant at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Presque Isle for the past 72 years. Daniel Ladner has been at the console of the church’s organ.

“Little did I know when I started playing the organ in 1951 at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Presque Isle that I would still be playing here 72 years later,” says Ladner. “As 35, 45, 50 years clicked by, I still didn’t think I would make it to 72 years, but all of sudden, here I am.”

“We have been blessed to have him with us all these years,” says Judy Kenney, who serves on the Parish Council for the Parish of the Precious Blood and as chair of the Worship and Spirituality Commission. “He has been part of our lives in church from our baptisms to our sacraments to some of our weddings and some of the funerals in our families. He is the music man of Aroostook County.”

“Dan’s contributions are numberless. He is just such an inspiration,” says Theresa Fowler, chair of the Church Council. “He’s a gifted, gifted musician, and we have been so fortunate to have him stay in service to our church for so long. Seventy-two years is an amazing length of time for someone to contribute weekly.”

Ladner thanks God for giving him his musical talent, and he credits the Holy Spirit for his longevity.

“I am a big believer in the Holy Spirit and His works,” he says. “The Holy Spirit guides me, really guides me.”

He says when he plays in church, he always seeks to create a prayerful atmosphere.

“I hope the music touches their hearts and souls,” he says. “I want them to feel the presence of God in the house of God.”

To serve as a church’s organist for 72 years, you have to start at a young age, and Ladner did. He was just 14 years old when his piano teacher suggested that he give it a try.

“The piano teacher who I had when I was in the eighth grade thought I had advanced enough to maybe try the church organ. She said, ‘Would you like to do that?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ So, she asked the pastor if it was all right if I went in and tried the organ, and it came very easily to me,” says Ladner.

Ladner says he has always had a love for music and had started taking piano lessons at a young age. Although he never studied the organ, he says he had neighbors who had a pump organ in their home, so he used to go over and play.

“It gave me the touch of the keys without lifting your fingers. So, when I went on to the big church organ, it just came back to me,” he says.

Ladner joined the adult choir at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, more commonly known as St. Mary’s, and also began playing the organ for the Sunday 8 a.m. Mass. It was a big responsibility for a young teenager.

“I would have heart palpitations before every Mass,” he says. “I used to perspire so badly that my hands would be all wet, and they would slip on the organ keys. My dad was a baseball umpire and he had some bags of rosin that he used for the baseball players, so he gave me one of those bags. I would pat my hands before I would play.”

However, over time, his confidence grew.

“My playing was very simple and soft in the beginning, but as the weeks and months passed, the experience and encouragement from listeners started giving me a little more confidence and courage,” he says.

In high school, he worked at a music store not far from St. Mary’s, and he would spend his lunch breaks at the church practicing.

“I had a quick lunch at Newberry’s counter, and then, I would head right down to St. Mary’s to practice for a half hour. It helped build my repertoire,” he says.

While Ladner usually played for the Low Mass, for which there was no choir, during his senior year, he was asked to play at the Christmas Midnight Mass when the regular organist was unable to do it.

“Boy was I nervous about the prospect. I had never played for a High Mass or accompanied the choir before, and being just a kid, I wasn’t sure if I was up to the task,” he says.

Fortunately, he says it went off without a hitch.

Such was Ladner’s talent, that he was also chosen to play at Masses celebrated in the chapel at the Presque Isle Air Force Base, now closed.

“That was quite an experience, and the chaplain would take me to the officers’ club afterwards for brunch. That was pretty special for a high school kid,” he says.

After graduating, Ladner studied music at Boston University with the thought of becoming a band director. However, he soon realized his true desire was to be a teacher, so after just one semester, he transferred to Aroostook State Teachers College, which brought him back to Presque Isle and to St. Mary’s.

“When I came back from Boston, the organist and choir director, who were elderly, said, ‘Dan, we would like to retire. Would you take over the choir as organist?’” he recalls.

Although he was just 19 years old, he says it didn’t faze him.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” he says.

He says he took the responsibility seriously, and yet, there was still a childlike playfulness within him.

“Up in the choir loft, they had these little, old-fashioned chandeliers hanging from the ceiling that looked like something you might see in a barber shop. There were five of them hanging over the middle aisle, and I always used to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to be like Tarzan and take a rope and swing down through that middle aisle?’”

After earning his college degree, Ladner became a fifth-grade teacher. Although he taught all subjects, music remained one of his specialities.

“The other teachers, there weren’t many who were musical, so they used to say, ‘Dan, if you take my music class, I’ll take your phys. ed. class,’ or ‘If you take my music class, I’ll take your science class,’” he recalls.

After 10 years teaching fifth graders, he took a position at the high school, teaching speech and English while also directing student productions of musicals.

“The first one they had ever performed at Presque Isle High School was Oklahoma!, and the next one was West Side Story. We were crazy, but we pulled it off beautifully,” he says.

He later moved to Caribou High School and took over direction of the Performing Arts Center, doing musicals there, and he was also the music director and often the lead actor for shows performed at the Lions Club.

“I played Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady,” he says. “I played King Arthur in Camelot. That was one of my favorites. I played the Man of La Mancha. I played Don Quixote twice, and I played Fagin in Oliver Twist.”

Ladner has also been instrumental in the success of the Caribou Choral Society, now in its 47th year. The distinguished choir, which has performed not only in Caribou and Presque Isle but in the St. John River Valley and in Canada, was originally established for the nation’s bicentennial, with the expectation that it would then disband. Ladner, however, says when he was asked to do the music for newly ordained Father Joseph Manship’s first Mass in Caribou, instead of creating a new group, he turned to the Caribou Bicentennial Choir. It went so well that the group continued to perform with Ladner as their director.

“He is an icon in our area,” says Kenney. “His credentials are a mile long, and of course, he has been here at St. Mary’s for 72 years, through generations in our church.”

But the current generations will be the last to hear Ladner regularly play.

“I am retiring because I am 86, and I am a little weary,” he says.

Parishioners say it won’t be the same without him.

“When I told my children that he is going to retire, they said, ‘But Mom, he is the church,’” says Kenney. “We will try to persevere, but it’s going to be different.”

“Music has been his life, and we have been blessed to have him share his life with us,” says Wanda Glovins, who serves as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion.

Although Ladner is stepping down as full-time organist, he says he will still play at funerals if needed, and he still plans to play the organ at the local Methodist church, which he has been doing for the past 25 years. He will also continue to direct the choral society.

“I would like to do it until I can’t do it anymore,” he says. “I always said that I would like to die while I am holding my arms up for a big chord at the end of something like the “Hallelujah Chorus” and then keel over. For me, that would be the way to go.”

Dan Ladner playing the organ
Dan Ladner sitting on a bench in his yard
Dan Ladner receives a retirement gift.