Nearly 56 years after he walked into an East Chattanooga Methodist church "to help out for a while," Ron Starnes is stepping down as a church choir director.
That career, which was intermingled with 35 years in education as well as the leadership of the Chattanooga Boys Choir, involved seven congregations in three locations and more than a dozen senior pastors.
"I just loved what I was doing and kept doing it," says Starnes, 75, who could pass for a decade or more younger. "It's been such a wonderful opportunity to be in ministry through these many years."
He'll wind up his career -- he's approaching his 40th year at Brainerd United Methodist Church -- on Sunday, Jan. 25.
While Starnes didn't plan a career in church music, it was in his blood.
"My mom was a church organist," Starnes says. "I grew up on a piano bench. My grandfather was a song leader for the evening service."
So when he was pursuing an instrumental music degree at the University of Chattanooga, it was no stretch that one of his music professors, E.D. Rushworth, mentioned that Manker Memorial Methodist Church needed some help with its choir.
Starnes took the job in 1958, when he was still a college junior, kept it after he graduated in 1960 and maintained it when the church merged with King Memorial Methodist in 1961 to become East Chattanooga Methodist.
He moved to Woodmore Methodist Church in 1962 and stayed when the congregation merged with Trinity Methodist to become Trinity-Woodmore Methodist in 1964.
Indeed, says Starnes, the Rev. J. Monroe Ball, the pastor at Woodmore Methodist, married Starnes and his wife, Ethel, at 2:30 p.m. on June 6, 1964, then dashed over to Brainerd Methodist, where the regional Holston Methodist Conference was meeting and would affirm, at almost exactly the same hour, the merger of the Trinity and Woodmore churches.
Starnes remained at Trinity-Woodmore for another 10 years before being hired at Brainerd United Methodist, which merged with Asbury United Methodist and St. Andrews United Methodist churches during his years there.
Starnes' church choir positions over the years have been part-time, but the likelihood of a part-time choir director at a then- 1,500-plus member church is akin to being partially pregnant. Ain't no such thing.
At one point at Brainerd United Methodist, for instance, he led the regular choir, youth choir and the children's, youth and adult handbell choirs.
Along the way, Starnes moved from band and choral director at Soddy-Daisy High School in the old Hamilton County Schools system in 1960 to band and orchestra leader at Brainerd Junior High School and its feeder schools in 1963. In 1979, When he left those positions -- as well as spending the latter portion of his day as orchestra leader at Brainerd High School -- he went into school administration.
In that capacity, he served as assistant principal at Big Ridge Elementary School during the 1979-80 school year, then as principal at Barger Elementary School from 1980 to 1986. In 1986, he became music coordinator for the city schools and eventually fine arts coordinator before retiring in 1994.
But Starnes has continued in church music, where he says you "get attached" to members in the same way a Sunday school class bonds.
Only a couple of members of his Brainerd UMC choir in 1974 are still in the choir today. And worship music, he says, has changed from largely classical and semi-classical to a mix of music that, even in traditional services, "fits [better] in introducing worship."
Starnes says he's never had to tell anyone in one of his choirs he or she couldn't sing, though he jokes "there are some I wish on their own had decided to do something else."
In truth, he says, "we've been gifted with great talents and voices. Although you often hear the music department [of a church] is the war department, that's never been the case where I have been. It's been a very worshipful, caring and Christian environment."
Through the years, Starnes says he's directed choirs in thousands of songs and anthems, but his favorite is "My Eternal King," "a powerful, powerful text [by Jane Marshall] and great music," which the Brainerd choir will perform on his final Sunday.
Following his church retirement, he says he and his wife will travel and do a lot of things they've been unable to do when he was busy with the various choirs. They'll also likely visit more with their three children -- David followed in his father's musical footsteps and is director of bands at Western Carolina University -- and five grandchildren.
But give up music altogether? Nah.
Starnes says he'll continue to lead the Scenic City Chorale and serve as associate director of the Mid South band, in which he also plays the euphonium.
Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.