When a music teacher asked 14-year-old Dan Ladner if he’d like to play the organ at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Presque Isle, he said he’d try it.
He stayed for 72 years.
Ladner retired last weekend as organist and choir director at the church, part of the Parish of the Precious Blood, which serves Presque Isle, Caribou and surrounding communities.
It would be difficult to find an Aroostook resident who hasn’t heard Ladner’s music or seen him on stage. Besides playing decades of church services, weddings and funerals, he has been a fixture in local musical theater. He also started a long-running community chorus and spent 40 years in education.
But for parishioners, he tried to bridge a gap between worship and life’s busyness with the musical peace of a sacred hour.
“I tried to create a holy space. That is the pleasurable part of playing for services, is creating that mood,” he said. “The feeling of trying to reach people is what I will miss the most.”
For Tammy Scott, the eldest of Ladner’s four daughters, being at church with her dad was a way of life. She came to realize all that he did to fill every available space in the Mass with music, she said.
One thing that fascinated her was the 5-by-7 mirror he kept at the organ.
It turned out there was a good reason. Up in St. Mary’s choir loft, the organist sits with his back to the sanctuary. Ladner used the mirror to see what was happening below, so he knew when to play.
Last Sunday the church surprised Ladner with a special presentation, Scott said. They invited him down to the altar, and she accompanied him. Parishioner Judy Kenney presented him with a card of thanks and a plaque in honor of his service, which will hang in the choir loft.
“I cried all the way down,” she said. “Judy’s words were really beautiful, and they gave him a standing ovation.”
Ladner loved music even as a child. His parents, Viola and Fay Ladner, supported him in taking piano lessons and singing in a children’s choir. While living in Mapleton, where his father had a general store, neighbors had a pump organ that he taught himself to play.
He started playing at St. Mary’s as a high school freshman, and became organist and senior choir director at 18 when his predecessor and mentor, Victoria Martin, retired. He found it challenging and exciting because he could choose the music, he said.
After a brief stint at Boston College, he graduated from Aroostook State Teachers College, which later became the University of Maine at Presque Isle.
Besides teaching in Presque Isle and Caribou, he directed and starred in musical theater for decades, and helped launch the Presque Isle Community Players. While at Caribou High School he directed the Caribou Performing Arts Center.
Weddings and special services at Easter and Christmas were among his favorite occasions, and he’ll miss providing music for his longtime church family, Ladner said.
“The most wonderful thing, I think, about playing the organ is the variety of sounds you can make with all the stops,” Ladner said. He enjoys experimenting and tailoring the sound to the feeling of the musical selections.
Ladner has seen the Catholic Church through decades of change. Vatican II in the 1960s turned liturgical music upside down, Ladner said. The priest now faces the congregation, Latin chants were exchanged for English and folk music came into the church.
He loved the changes because they meant moving out of an ancient tradition and into a new, more vibrant church, he said.
Ladner has done double duty on Sundays for 25 years, playing at 9 a.m. at St. Mary’s and then at 10:30 at Grant Memorial United Methodist Church in Presque Isle.
He became organist and choir director at Grant Memorial in 1998. The church moved its Sunday service a half-hour later for him, he said.
He will continue at Grant Memorial, but now won’t have to rush from one church to the other — a feat that got him stopped for speeding the first day he did it, he said.
He’ll also still lead what is likely Aroostook County’s longest running community chorus. The Caribou Bicentennial Chorus formed in 1976 and later became the Caribou Choral Society, he said.
“It’s very thrilling to conduct a large choir of adults,” Ladner said. “It’s a joy, because you start from scratch [every season].”
Now in its 44th year, the society started rehearsals Tuesday. The group draws people from throughout The County and performs winter and spring concerts.
Ladner’s other three daughters are Margo Bair of Pennsylvania, Beth Shaver of Virginia and Allison Ladner of Presque Isle. He and his wife, Barbara, also have seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
His daughters will host an open house in celebration of his St. Mary’s career from 1 to 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 1, at the Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle.
Whatever is next for him, it’s sure to include music.
“It’s always been in me,” he said. “It’s always been a part of me, wherever I go, whatever I’ve done.”