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95-year-old Angwinite spearheads restoration of massive church organ

When Barbara Tonsberg offered to help restore the Pacific Union College Church’s massive Rieger pipe organ, a church leader told her she couldn’t get it done for a reasonable price.

Note to future doubters: Never tell this 95-year-old Angwin woman what she can’t do.

At a recital on Saturday, Nov. 6, the largest organ of its kind on the West Coast will make its triumphant return to public performance, repaired of wear and tear and significant damage sustained during the 2014 Napa earthquake.

“Somebody had to fix it,” said Tonsberg, one of the church’s former organists who last played in 2018. “It couldn’t just sit here. That wasn’t going to happen as far as I was concerned.”

This March marked the 40th anniversary of the organ’s arrival from an Austrian factory, which shipped it to Angwin in crates. It took a four-man crew six weeks to assemble the organ’s three main components. A fourth division, operated by the top keyboard or “manual,” was installed later, completing the 55-foot-tall instrument.

The cost of the restoration is still being tallied but will probably be around $130,000, less than one-fifth of the cost that had been estimated before Tonsberg got involved.

Tonsberg served on the committee that selected the organ in the late ‘70s.

“We searched all over the United States and couldn’t find what we wanted,” she recalled.

They visited organ makers in Canada. Then they flew to France. Their search finally ended at the Rieger Orgelbau factory in Austria.

Tonsberg says the organ is “of genuine Austrian heritage with a Germanic accent, but made in the French style.”

Organs of this scale each have a unique sound. For instance, the one at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco is “wonderful, but totally different,” Tonsberg said.

Even the manuals of the PUC Church organ are unique. Instead of the familiar modern arrangement of white keys for the natural notes and black keys for the half-tones, the colors are reversed, a throwback to 18th-century harpsichords.

Years of regular use by organists and students took their toll, and the 2014 earthquake caused some of the heaviest pipes to bounce up and down, smashing the delicate “toes” beneath them, leaving some parts dangling by fishing line and rendering the organ all but unplayable.

“It was worth $2 million and it was just sitting here,” recalled Tonsberg.

The necessary repairs were estimated at $750,000, which the church considered too expensive. When Tonsberg told a church leader she could fix the organ for a fraction of that cost, she remembers him telling her “you can’t do that.”

“I could tell he had no faith in me at all,” Tonsberg said. “I said, ‘Try me.’”

Tonsberg pared down the estimate by eliminating what she deemed unnecessary “frills” and focusing on the essentials: replacing the faulty slider motors that were letting air get into the pipes and causing the organ to play on its own, replacing the toes and other parts that had been damaged by the earthquake, replacing the bamboo balanciers that had deteriorated over time, and replacing the felt pads under the four keyboards.

Tonsberg said Pastor Emeritus John Hughson provided valuable help with fundraising — “he was so nice and so much fun to work with” — and the San Leandro-based Hupalo & Repasky did the actual work, but she called the shots, working closely with John Rupalo.

“I knew what needed to be done and he knew how to do it,” Tonsberg said. “We got along very well.”

When asked how she feels now that the organ is finally restored, Tonsberg heaved a big sigh of relief. “That’s how it feels,” she said.

“Now if I can just make it to Nov. 6 (for the recital),” she said last week. “A few more days, but at this stage of my life anything can happen.”

She’ll make it. Don’t tell her she can’t.

Barbara Tonsberg discusses the newly restored Pacific Union College Church organ

You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or jduarte@sthelenastar.com.

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