TROY — Local resident Darrell Cornell has spent the entirety of his adult life serving as organist for First Baptist Church in Troy, and has held the title of music minister for over 60 years.
Born on his grandfather’s farm in Clark County’s Pike Township, Cornell was raised in a rural, small town environment. Like his grandfather, Cornell’s dad, Harold, made a living as a farmer, and at the age of two, Cornell said he and his family moved onto their own 97-acre farm in Champaign County.
From a young age, Cornell attended church, and it was here that his interest in music was sparked.
“I started playing piano at 5 years old,” he said. “We had a pump parlor organ in one of the rooms in our house and after Sunday school and church, I’d come home and pump that organ and play what I’d heard at church.“
At the urging of his dad, Cornell began taking proper piano lessons.
“My father said to my mother, ‘We gotta get this kid started on piano lessons because if we don’t, his ear is going to get ahead of his music knowledge and we need to have him learn to read music before he gets too far along,’” Cornell recalled.
From the age of 5 until he turned 11, Cornell received piano lessons from a local teacher, who he said taught him everything she knew about the instrument.
“(She) took me through all the John Thompson (piano lesson) books and when she got me through the last level book, she told my mother and I, ‘I cannot teach you any longer; you know as much as I do,’” he said.
Cornell was then referred to classically-trained teacher in Springfield.
“He was determined to groom me to go to Julliard School of Music in New York,” Cornell said. “I was with him for two years, I saw where this was going, and I said to my mother, ‘I do not want to go to New York City to study music.’ I’m a small town boy.”
Cornell said it was his final music teacher, in 1956, who taught him how to play the pipe organ.
“He showed me how to move around on the keyboard and he taught me how to recognize the positions of the foot pedals and how to know the different registrations of pipes and strings and diapasons and flutes,” Cornell said. “Then he gave me the instruction that no two installations of a pipe organ sounded alike; everything was different because acoustics were different in every church.”
Soon after graduation from the now-closed Christiansburg-Jackson High School in 1956, Cornell auditioned for an organist position at First Baptist Church and was accepted. He began in June of 1957 and has been with the church ever since.
In the 60-plus years at FBC, Cornell, now 81, has served in multiple capacities within the music ministry, including in both traditional and contemporary praise bands, as director of the men’s and women’s choirs and as the main choir director, along with his responsibilities as the organist and music minster. He also provides the music for both praise bands.
Cornell said his position with the church has always been part-time, and for 39½ years, he worked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, from which he retired in 1997.
Along with years of enjoyment as organist, FBC also brought Cornell a chance meeting with the woman who would become his wife, Merrily. The two have been married for 58 years and have three sons, seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
Cornell said his spirituality and love of God is what brings him the most joy while playing. He said sermons are planned on a monthly basis and he aims to arrange the music to harmonize with each sermon’s topic.
“My favorite thing about my music is serving the Lord and asking for his guidance on what is used and then rejoicing when that correlates to what the sermon topics touched on, so they seem to compliment each other,” he said. “That’s pure joy when that happens.”
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