Walter Holtkamp, Jr.
Retired President, Holtkamp Organ Company
Charles Brenton Fisk,—hereinafter referred to as Charlie—Charlie and I were friends. We were not close, personal friends such as he was with many of you. Charlie and I were professional friends. We did not talk about wives or kids, triumphs or defeats. When we talked, which we did occasionally, we talked mostly about the specifics of organ building, through occasionally we slid off into generalizations about the craft, the art, and of course, a little organ builder’s gossip. As you may know, Charlie and Ann worked for my father during the years I was aboard a ship in the US Navy. By the time I came into our shop in the fall of 1956, they had departed. Charlie and I did not become friends until perhaps the late 1960’s. Musicians were pushing me to get into mechanical action instruments. I was interested, but I resisted. I didn’t want to do a warmed-over version of post-World War II European organs.
One of the things I did to resolve this dilemma was to come over to Boston to spend a day with Charlie—kind of picking at the ideas, the implications, the technical questions and the possibilities of the Holtkamp organ and mechanical key action. It was typical of Charlie that he would devote a day to such a discussion and helping a fellow builder. Charlie was one of those unusual people who could address the question you asked rather than the question that interested him. He did not address my question of the Holtkamp organ and mechanical action by urging me to do what he did or what other mechanical action builders were doing.
Our discussion dealt with the Holtkamp organ and how various mechanical systems could be utilized and applied. Charlie had a genuine gift for acute analysis of such a question. I headed back to Cleveland pretty well convinced that it would be difficult, but I could indeed pursue the kind of visual design and tonal design I favored—in mechanical action.
In the course of that day, Charlie demonstrated one of his — for me — most endearing traits. As we talked, he made a whole series of little pencil sketches illustrating the points he wanted to make. Each idea had its own little sketch. I honestly think that if I’d asked him what time it was, he’d have started a sketch of a clock face!
In later years, I learned that among the heavy-lifters in nuclear physics, it was an absolute requirement to be able to illustrate your concepts graphically — just a big long formula on a blackboard didn’t cut it. You had to draw the picture — which is just what Charlie continued to do when he made the transition from the world of physics to the world of pipe organ building. He brought with him the analytical vigor of the physical scientist, but it was clear that he loved the romance of organ building. He loved the clever solutions and the neat stuff in old instruments. He loved poking around in the work of those builders he called “the old guys.”
I enjoyed his company. I admired his work. I think I was a better organ builder for having known him. And I sure enjoyed his little pencil sketches!