Fifty years at the keys have flown by for Hilliard resident Steve Dodson, the organist at St. James Lutheran Church.

Fifty years at the keys have flown by for Hilliard resident Steve Dodson, the organist at St. James Lutheran Church.

"It's been a trip. No way does it seem like 50 years," said Dodson, 65.

Twice each Sunday morning, with rare exceptions, Dodson takes a seat before a mechanical action pipe organ, manufactured in 1926 by the defunct Hinners Organ Co. of Illinois, and endeavors to inspire the congregation that meets at 5660 Trabue Road in Columbus.

"I do my preaching through the pipes," said Dodson, whose fingers deftly flit across two rows of 44 keys while flipping other switches and simultaneously using his feet to create crescendos or diminish the layers of sounds emitted from the organ's rows of pipes.

Seated in a small balcony with his back to the cathedral, few of the church's 600 members see Dodson, but his presence is unmistakable.

While not an original composer, Dodson said, he strives to reinterpret sacred works.

"Hearing six verses of the same hymn played over again and again the same way could get to be boring to some people," said Dodson, who practices key changes and experiments with the texture of compositions using "stops," the manipulation of the compressed air that creates the organ's sound, to slightly alter recognizable compositions.

Dodson began piano lessons in the fourth grade and played his mother's piano at the family's Hilltop residence where his brother, Doug, pretended to give sermons.

"Not going to church was not an option. If you said you didn't feel good (Sunday morning), then you were staying in bed the whole day," said Dodson, whose parents, Don and Joan, never missed a Sunday service at St. James, which was founded by German immigrants in 1847. The church building was constructed in 1871.

Dodson recalls a day in 1964, soon after his 15th birthday, when he wandered into the balcony of St. James' sanctuary and asked organist Lee Grugel a question that would change Dodson's life: "How hard is that to play?"

Grugel, the pastor's son, offered to show Dodson how to play and about twice a week, usually on Saturdays and another weekday, Dodson was an apprentice for a job he had no idea he would hold for the next 50 years.

After about six weeks, Grugel suggested Dodson play the organ at the next Sunday morning service.

"I played and no one noticed the difference," Dodson said.

A few weeks later, Grugel told Dodson he had accepted a job teaching at a school in Eau Claire, Wis., and asked Dodson if he was interested in becoming the church's full-time organist.

Dodson said he was apprehensive about the offer, but then Grugel advised him it paid $50 a month -- and weddings and funerals were extra.

It cinched the decision.

Dodson opts to play at fewer weddings and funerals than in the recent past, but still does so for family and friends.

He said he strives to remember things about members of the congregation for such occasions, whether they be a celebratory or somber tune.

Aware that a deceased family member of a parishioner collected miniature angels, he played the hymn, Angels from the Realm of Glory, at the woman's funeral.

"I think that meant something to the family," Dodson said.

Dodson said he strives each week to make a connection through music.

"My job is to tell the word of God through my fingers," Dodson said. "If the music I play inspired someone or made them smile, then I've done what I wanted. It's my gift."

It's a gift he shares even when not playing at St. James.

While on vacation about 35 years ago with his wife, Sharon, and their children, Seth and Sarah, the family visited a church in Bradenton, Fla.

Noticing an absent organist and a harried pastor, he learned the church's organist had an emergency appendectomy that same morning. Dodson offered to fill in and played.

This time, the congregation noticed the difference.

"I tend to play loud and kind of fast. Apparently their organist played slow and quiet," Dodson said. "As people left, they were throwing money on top of the organ. It was like being at a piano bar."

He even received an offer from the church to serve as its music director.

"But I already had a job," Dodson said.

The St. James Lutheran Church congregation will celebrate that "job" at 9 a.m. Sunday, June 15, with a reception in Dodson's honor to be held between services.

"He's been a blessing to the congregation," said the Rev. John Hood, who has served as pastor of the St. James congregation for the past 17 years.

Hood said Dodson is always prepared and conscientious and truly cares about the congregation and the worship experience.

"I've told him I won't let him retire until I retire," Hood said.