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An Austin Original

Celebrating the Life of Otto Hofmann,1918-2001

By Robyn Turner, Fri., June 8, 2001

Otto Hofmann
Otto Hofmann
Photo By Susan Van Haitsma

There lies the cotton patch -- spread out across the fields near Kyle -- abundant with rich soil, and steeped in the legacy of Otto Jurgen Hofmann, 1918-2001. Aware of the fragrance of the freshly mown prairie grass in this small, country cemetery, I recall my late friend's words about his childhood stomping grounds: "So I became the father of the organ school in America. Amazingly, it all happened just right out of the cotton patch!"


We are gathered today, May 15, to bury Otto. His extended family, mostly of German origin, along with a handful of friends, will attempt to say goodbye to this legendary Austinite. The usual canvas awning shelters folks from the late-morning Texas sun. Folded chairs for the elderly, a CD player, but not a floral arrangement in sight set the scene, reflective of Otto's lifelong testament to simplicity. All is right, just as he planned it, except for one detail. He despised this "fake green carpet," or Astroturf, we're standing on. I look ahead at the live oaks on the horizon and imagine instead the prairie grass beneath my feet. Only footsteps away, a deep grave has been chiseled into the ground. Just now, a nondescript van rumbles across the dirt road of the cemetery. Everyone turns to acknowledge this modern-day chariot. As it pulls up to the site, a hush falls over the group.

"This will be no ordinary graveside service," explains Otto's older son, Franz. "My father planned every detail of it, and we are here to carry out his wishes." Then Franz, a master mechanic by trade, explains the nuts and bolts of what to expect during a Quaker graveside service.

Otto and his family joined the Friends Meeting of Austin (Quakers) in 1954. Even before then, during World War II, Otto had been a conscientious objector. He did his alternative service caring for severely disturbed young men in a mental institution. For some 20 years now, he has been considered the grand old man of Quaker Meeting.

My mind recalls his image during weekly Sunday "First Day" Meeting for Worship. At five minutes before noon, Otto routinely would rise to speak. His flat-brimmed hat would then get tucked under his arm. For most of the year, he typically wore a white shirt and pants, complete with brown leather sandals and white socks.

Stroking his cropped white beard, Otto would announce a philosophical insight he had felt led to share in Meeting. Topics ranged from complex physics principles and their miraculous connections with the spiritual realm, to queries about Friends' involvement in community service, to revelations about the intricate dance on the carpet that was created by shadows of fluttering leaves outside the Meetinghouse window. Quite regularly, he would tell a story about Peter (Peta), his childhood dog, with the same tenderness that he might play a lullaby on the piano across the room. In fact, Otto's perch, a simple upright chair unofficially reserved for him during Meeting, sat next to a rocking chair that he provided and reserved for mothers with new babies.

At the close of Meeting, he typically would swoop up a couple of elementary-age kids, my own included, and take them to purchase Kentucky Fried Chicken wings for the potluck dinner on the grounds. What a rare quality this man possessed -- that of being enchanted with the ordinary.

Always welcoming, forever smiling, yet resolute, Otto helped calm the winds of political discussions that blew occasionally through the Meetinghouse. "I've had my bags packed for years, prepared to go to jail," he announced in response to the threats of imprisonment when the Meeting harbored Salvadoran refugees in 1984. Or, "And this too shall pass," he would often comment, about factions that left consensus building among the Meeting's members at a stalemate.

Today it is Otto who has passed. As Franz instructs his own sons and nephews to remove the casket from the van, I wonder how it came to be that Otto Hofmann -- so filled with the light -- released his strong grip on this life. The men begin to lift the casket, and suddenly I marvel at the grand old man's timing. Fact: the Quaker Meetinghouse, at 3014 Washington Square, sold last week.

The casket emerges from the van. It is a plain pine coffin with exposed nail heads and rope loops as handles. My first thought: Can they have built it large enough to accommodate that tall, lanky Texan?

Something about those words -- tall, lanky Texan -- makes me shiver. Oh yes. Some 22 years ago, he was explaining about how he came to be a builder of the German pipe organ. "I would go to Europe and come back with a multitude of ideas. So, I was closer-tied to the Europeans than I was to the builders on our East Coast ... They all knew me. I would walk through their factories. I had the language facility. They were curious of this tall, lanky Texan coming in there speaking German and other languages, a little. I'd go in, then I'd walk out with all of their secrets! They didn't know I was taking measurements on my fingernails and my joints. Anyway, most of the nice ones opened up their secrets to me. We became very good friends."

Several years after that interview with Otto, I would enjoy tea and cake with Simon Preston, renowned organist at Westminster Abbey in London, in his quarters adjacent to the cathedral. My ticket: a handwritten letter of introduction to him from Otto Hofmann. I recall Otto's response when he heard of my plans to travel. "My goodness!" he exclaimed, with a resounding clap of joy, "I must write a letter of introduction!"

The pine coffin now rests on the usual shiny steel contraption, involving straps beneath it, above the empty cube in the earth. Then Franz asks the man who built the coffin to describe the process by which Otto selected it. The coffin builder explains that Otto approached him two years ago about his desires for a simple casket. When Otto discovered that such a coffin already existed in the man's garage, he bought it. Otto kept the coffin in his hallway and explained its purpose individually to his seven grown children and countless grandchildren.

Rewind now to Otto's house. There were the ice cream socials on the spacious front porch surrounding the live oak on Cardinal Lane. Next, a dinner party he hosted some 20 years ago. Perhaps he had cooked his famous "Chicken Otto," a recipe he often boasted about, calling for a can of mushroom soup, a chicken, and some rice. The event was an intimate dinner for four. Or was it a holiday feast, at which some 15 guests were present? Either way, it was illuminated by candlelight. That's but one reason navigation into and through his house would require dexterity. To begin, the entry, on the back porch, involved winding through a maze of used appliances. Two refrigerators, a stove, maybe a couple of washing machines at any given date -- they all served as inventory for Otto's lending library to anyone who needed them.

Once in the house proper, the path was clear to the dining room, which also served as a family room with windows all around and plants gushing from hanging baskets. Otto periodically would clear off the top of his grand piano, especially for a party of this kind. Elated, he would boast that he had filled three or four more gray, wooden, pipe-organ boxes with letters and other memorabilia from the past three years. Oh, the stories those letters revealed over supper!

After dessert, party guests were invited to sit on the roof and watch the stars. To get there, everyone physically able ascended the stairwell -- each step flanked by empty mason jars awaiting a recycling opportunity. The ascension up the stairwell led directly to "the winter palace." That was Otto's European nickname for his bedroom, which entailed the entire second floor of the house. The palace had no interior walls, except closets. At the top of the steps and in the open bedroom: a toilet greeted guests. Then, a standing lavatory. Otto called it "the biggest bathroom in the biggest state."

Across the room was a huge plywood table supported by sawhorses, filled with architectural drawings of pipe organs. These were the seeds of the towering marvels under construction out back in the barn. Next, guests gave a nod toward Otto's bed, said to be somewhere beneath layers of books about European history, each opened to a special page, awaiting his hungry eyes. Finally, a climb through the window had folks then ladder-bound to the top of the roof, where lawn chairs awaited the stargazing finale.

"As you all know, my father loved music," Franz continues from beneath the canopy. Heidi, Otto's youngest daughter, reaches for the CD player and starts the classical selection he had requested for this special day. Her own young daughter hands Heidi a small bouquet of flowers that graced their Mother's Day table last Sunday. With her father's own tenderness, Heidi lays the bouquet onto the simple pine coffin. Then she bows her head, closes her eyes, and lays her hand on the wooden lid. Next, she plays Chopin's "Etude in E-Flat Major," explaining it was "our song," which Otto often played long ago with her on his lap at the piano.

Now the many classical selections we enjoyed as members of an informal Sunday-night string quartet for some 15 years begin to reel through my memory. Otto knew most of the selections by ear, both on cello and piano. This was his joy -- the music. It was also a direct link to his childhood, as he was the youngest of 10 among the first generation of musical German immigrants on the farm near Kyle. Otto knew the scores, yes. But he also eagerly shared the historical context in which they were composed, as though we were among the kings and queens of yesteryear. His cardinal rule for keeping string quartet a pleasure: "No one is allowed to practice!" Each week, Otto's bow pulled nobly across his cello strings to conclude with the benediction, Haydn's "Emperor." During our last sessions, as Otto's health began to fail from "strokelettes," as he called them, I began to sense a foreshadowing of the omega we face today.

Almost every relative and friend has something to say about Otto before the service is complete. Daughters Anna and Barbara eulogize their father, unknowingly demonstrating their own heritage of his speech patterns and gestures. Tim, their younger son, has been encouraged by the family to stay in Washington, D.C., today for the eagerly awaited birth of his and Angela's twin boys.

Rodney, Otto's apprentice and partner in organ building for more than 25 years, describes how the master would sleep beneath, or inside, the pipe organs they were building around the world. A Gestalt measure, this intimacy pushed the connection between artist and creation. Stories of special times, humorous anecdotes, and wistful remarks sum up a full life.

Toward the end of the service, a gentle voice that is clearly articulated and matches the Southern cadence of her brother's speech says she would like to add something. Otto's 90-year-old sister Dora speaks passionately: "I heard his first cry." Then she relates the vivid story of the day Otto was born. She adds another quip about her brother's homecomings to the farm, as a Plan II senior, and his delight in listening to his mother relate his favorite childhood stories once again. Dora concludes with a tearful thank you to Margret, Otto's former wife sitting nearby, his friend for more than 50 years, and devoted mother to five of his children.

In closing, a visiting Friend comments, "George Fox, in 1652, said for each of us to walk cheerfully across this earth, looking for that of God in each person. I think he was describing Otto Hofmann."

The casket is lowered by straps into the deep grave. Then Franz invites each person to fill the shovel. Indeed, the sound of the earth meeting a pine coffin, rather like a drum void of vibrations, brings closure to this simple service, to an era, and to the life of a man who was loved by many. end story

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