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Your Town Texas: Wichita Falls' Unlikely Organists


by Stephen Becker 5 Oct 2010

When Kiyo and Chiemi Watanabe moved from Japan to the United States to study the organ, they didn’t expect to wind up in Wichita Falls. But for close to 15 years, they have served as the organists at Methodist churches a mile and a half from each other. As part of KERA’s Your Town Texas series, Stephen Becker visited Wichita Falls:

CTA TBD

When Kiyo and Chiemi Watanabe moved from Japan to the United States to study the organ, they didn’t expect to wind up in Wichita Falls. But for close to 15 years, they have served as the organists at Methodist churches a mile and a half from each other. As part of KERA’s Your Town Texas series, Stephen Becker visited Wichita Falls:

KERA radio story:


Expanded online version:

It’s Sunday morning at Floral Heights United Methodist Church in Wichita Falls. And organist Chiemi (Chee-ah-mee) Watanabe is busy.

At the 8:30 Chapel service, Chiemi accompanies a singer on the piano. But before the pastor can get to his sermon, she bolts out a side door and into the main sanctuary. It’s time to rehearse the children’s choir.

Chiemi doesn’t see much of her husband, Kiyo, on Sunday mornings. He’s busy a mile and a half down the road at First United Methodist Church.

He conducts the handbell choir at the 10:30 service, and then fills the sanctuary with Bach as the service comes to a close.

With funerals, weddings, rehearsals and regular services, a professional organist stays busy. Kiyo says that for he and Chiemi, the line between life and work is a happy blur.

KIYO: “Somebody asked me what we do when we don’t work, and that’s a very difficult answer because our hobby is playing the organ and creating music. This job is just our life.”

And if it weren’t for those jobs, it’s doubtful the Watanabes would have ever heard of Wichita Falls, much less lived there.

Both Kiyo and Chiemi were born in Japan. But they didn’t meet until they were both studying the organ at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music in the mid-1990s. After earning his doctorate in music, Kiyo needed a job. A former teacher told him about an opening at a church in Wichita Falls. In 1996, he became the organist at First United.

Chiemi soon followed. But she wasn’t prepared for what she would find.

CHIEMI: “There was nothing. Big land and big skies. Skunk on the road and squirrels in the trees. I’ve never seen such … beautiful? scenes in New York City or in my hometown.”

She took a job as a part time organist at an Episcopal church. A month later, a full-time job opened at Floral Heights. The couple married in 1997.

After life in Tokyo and Manhattan, it took some time for Kiyo and Chiemi to embrace Wichita Falls. For a while, the only people they really knew in town were each other. But they started to meet some of the few Japanese people who live there. Women married to servicemen stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base. Japanese students studying at Midwestern State University.

KIYO: “If you’re a foreigner, somehow you find the same kind of people. Even American people come up to me and say, ‘Look, there’s some Japanese people. You should get to know them.’ We shouldn’t stick together too much, but I think it’s natural.”

The Watanabes also met people through their churches. Both Floral Heights and First United are tight-knit communities. Before each service, it seems as if each person greets every other person in the church. But aside from just being neighborly, both congregations have extra reason to be friendly. They can brag the music at their churches comes from organists who play recitals across the country.

Paul Goodrich is the senior pastor at First United.

GOODRICH: “I grew up the son of a Methodist minister, so I have been in sanctuaries and exposed to organs and organists my entire life. I know what they can do. Not only our church, but our city is very blessed to have Kiyo and Chiemi.”

Kiyo says it’s hard to imagine leaving Wichita Falls. Plus, life has gotten more cosmopolitan.

KIYO: “We can buy sushi at the grocery store. Packed sushi! Not bad. That was a big thing for me.”

Wichita Falls lacks busy sidewalks and neon lights. But it makes up for it in opportunity to do fulfilling work.

CHIEMI: “To serve … God through the organ. That is really wonderful. We touch lots of people’s real lives.”

And in doing so, lots of people have touched theirs.

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  • Kim

    People like Kiyo and Chiemi are what make Wichita Falls so wonderful! In a seemingly small city of 100,000, we have such a diverse group of individuals who are making our town better and better all the time! We truly are growing into a more “cosmopolitan” city full of art, excitement, and opportunity-all while keeping that small town feel! Love it here!!

  • Tomiyasu

    Nice column!
    In 1987, I first met Kiyo at Baylor University, Waco Texas, when we both are early 20s. Several years later, Kiyo introduced me Chiemi when he was challenging to receive a doctorate in music at Manhattan School of Music.
    As one of their Japanese friends, I really am proud of them dedicating their life not only to christian communities in Wichita Falls, but also on performing as a darling husband-and-wife duo for many years!