Sunday, May 24, 2009


When our class reunion was announced, it was suggested that we all send in a short autobiography of what we have done since 1969. After getting to Princeton, I sent my bio to my classmates. I repeat it here for you all.


Greetings to all!

I thought it might be time to write to you before you hear "the news" from elsewhere... I have had a wonderful time in Princeton this week.

It cannot be forty years since we were students... I'm not that old. What? Neither are you? That's a relief...

Anyway. Here is what I have been doing...

After putting the Yearbook to bed in 1969, I lived with my parents for a short time and moved out before we seriously maimed each other. I did my job-hunting and ended up playing in an Episcopal Church on the weekends and working for the Hartman-Beaty Organ Company in Englewood, NJ. (Who?) By 1971, I was doing much of the technical design for their organs, and did most of the engineering work on a tracker organ they were building for Trinity Methodist in Charleston, SC. (Remember this!)

In 1970, I took the position of Director of Music at the Methodist Church in Leonia, NJ, and a year later, being very bold, not to mention having left the employ of H&B (who?), I offered to to rebuild their pipe organ, enlarging it from 17 to 44 ranks - not bad for an Opus 2! And it is still there and playing as I left it. I also founded the Second Sunday Concert Series, which continues to this day...

For the next five years, I worked with Allan Van Zoeren, a master voicer and tone finisher, and Tim Koelewijn, the master pipemaker who restored the pipes from the Schnitger organ at Zwolle, concurrently with selling Wicks organs, all of which gave me valuable experience as to what to do and what not to do tonally in an organ.

I met my to-be first wife, Edna, in 1977, and we were married in August of 1978. We honeymooned in - guess where - Charleston, SC. We attended services at Trinity Methodist, as I had never seen or heard the organ I engineered. Talking with a few local organists at lunch, I was strongly encouraged to move and set up shop there. So, we considered it, decided, moved there on our first anniversary, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I have built and rebuilt close to 35 organs since going South,including four IV-manual jobs, and in my spare time" have managed to compose more than 40 works for organ (including 2 organ symphonies in the style of Louis Vierne), various instruments, chorus, and Carillon. I am in the midst of completing my third art song cycle. I also got interested in aviation, and for a time owned and flew a Grumman AA5A "Cheetah" 4-place airplane. I was the second organbuilder in the world to have a website (Austin beat me by THREE DAYS!). And, I made the mistake of not evacuating on the morning of 22 September 1989 (my birthday) when Hurricane Hugo came to visit. Luckily no harm befell us even though there were 90-foot pine trees crashing down around our home in Mt. Pleasant.

But Hugo provided some benefits to us, and my First Great Moment occurred on 25 October 1992 when David Higgs dedicated, to an SRO audience, my new 72 rank pipe organ at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church in the heart of the Historic District. It is considered to be a worldclass concert instrument and is a major venue for the Spoleto Festival.

Then, in June of 1995, my Second Great Moments (sic) occurred with (1) in April, my winning Second Prize (there was no 1st prize awarded) in the Guild of Carilloneurs of North America's Composition Competition (say that 3 times very quickly..) with my piece "Cortege"; and, (2) in June, the premiere performance of my "Concerto in D for Organ, Strings, and Tympani", Op. 21, at First Scots with members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra.

In 1998, I attended the Paris Congress of the International Society of Organbuilders.

Then, in 1999, my wife and I separated and divorced. I remarried within a year, and that marriage ended amicably after only a few years.

In 2004, I journeyed to France, and performed much of the work of restoring the Recit division of the historic 1895 Stoltz Freres organ in the Parish Church in Ligueil, which is near Tours.

My Third Great Moments (getting sic (sic) of this joke, arent you...) occurred (1) in 2006, when Dutch organist Arjen Leistra premiered my "Variations on 'Est Ce Mars'" as a part of his Koniginnetag (Queen's Birthday) Recital at the Hoflaankerk in Rotterdam, and (2) almost exactly one year later, in 2007, when I participated in the planning for that year's PipeDreams Tour of Organs in Holland. I authored the 90 page guide entitled: "The Netherlands: Crossroads of European Organbuilding", which included a fairly comprehensive essay on Dutch history, culture, and music. We visited more than 40 organs during the two week tour, and I accompanied the group as Organbuilder-in-Residence giving short talks I called "Organbuilder's Minutes" at the more interesting instruments.

The last Recital of the tour was held at the Hoflaankerk and performed by my friend Arjen, who was the tour's Organist-in-Residence, and it was only fitting that we conclude with the singing of a hymn. We sang, in English, "We Gather Together to Ask the Lord's Blessing", to the old Dutch tune "Kremser", which is familiar to you all. I wrote a new concluding verse, which I want to offer to you all.


With organs resounding, our fanfares announcing,
The triumph of Jesus our Saviour and King.
The whole diapason gives gladsome intonation,
And through our music, Lord,
We witness of Thee.

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary 2009: diapason (n): etymology: dia through + pas┼Źn,
genitive feminine plural of pas all (1) the entire compass of musical tones
The Charleston Lawyers' Chorus (tm) sings an excerpt of the rock opera "Runaround, Sue" : "Permission is hereby granted any student, former student, graduate, friend, or whatever of Westminster Choir College to use the above hymn verse however they d___ well want, with a credit line being accorded the author, unless the Church Secretary says there isn't any room in the Bulletin... yeah, yeah, yeah..."


In 1997, I began to experience the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease. I have been since then under the personal care of the former Chair of the Neurology Dept of MUSC, Dr. David Bachman, who specialises in PD and Alzheimers.

Today, after close to 15 years of life with PD, I am only a light 2 on a 1 - 5 scale of severity, which is somewhat unusual. Unfortunately, I can no longer fly nor can I reliably play the organ for worship, but otherwise, my Doc says I am a walking advertisement for the salutary effects of attitude on one's physical condition. I tremble at the thought...

The PD coincided with my increasing awareness of other factors in my life which I had been denying or at least repressing; so, gravely depressed, I went into intense counseling for a year, and ended up not only beginning to find my true self, but co-founding, in 2000, a support group to help others like myself here in the Charleston area.

I have had gender identity issues since I was a child, but I hid them from everyone including my parents and first wife...and from you, in another galaxy long ago and far, far away! But one can only sustain that sort of dualism only for so long...

As one gets older, one realises she no longer has more years left than she has already lived, and things take on new levels of priority. After much thought and prayer, I have been guided to the path which I must follow for whatever time I have left (lots, I hope).

Some of you have already met the "new" me in Princeton this week, I am well along in the process of affirming my true inner self. My new name is Olivia Margaret Ontko. I intend to continue in my life's work of designing and voicing pipe, digital, and hybrid organs, composing, and writing. (Can you believe it, I am writing a murder mystery which will involve Westminster and a chase up the NJ Turnpike?). If any of you want to know more, visit my support group website at (yes, there are pictures and they are all G-rated...),

or - dont be shy - just ask me...there are no dumb questions...

My email address is now and my personal blog may be found at

I would be happy to see each and every one of you if you get to the Charleston SC area. I live on 3 acres in a little community northwest of Charleston, down a dirt road way out in the country.

How far out in the country?

There is no cable TV service available, which is no hardship as I haven't watched the telly in many years. I have to drive 2 miles towards town before my cell phone will work, which I do in my vintage 1988 Pontiac Fiero. But the internet and my landline phone work just fine thanks to AT&T and a bunch of signal boosters...

But... on a clear night in the middle of winter, there are so many stars visible from my front porch that you can almost read a large print book by their light; and the red fox trots softly across my front yard not three meters from where I stand; and you cannot hear any traffic noise except for my neighbor's rattly old Ford pickup making its way softly down the dirt road towards home...

That brings me up to date; thank you for reading this.

I have been richly blessed. God guide and bless y'all every one.

Allan / Olivia

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