David Farr (left) and Ed Roynal with Best Dog on their wedding day, February 2016 (with photo-bombing couple in background)
On a recent Saturday evening, the little hand bell group at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oakland rang bells for David Farr for the last time.
David was St. Paul’s choir and music director for seven years. Amid the tumult and death of 2016, his unexpected passing on December 15, mere months after both his retirement and wedding to his longtime partner Ed Roynal, may seem a minor event to the wider world. But to St. Paul’s congregation, David’s family and colleagues, and I’m sure many others, it dug a deep hole in the heart.
I adored David Farr. The best adjective I can find for him is sweet, as sweet and holy as the music that rose like incense under St. Paul’s old vaulted ceilings under his quiet, patient direction.
He was one of the essential reasons I chose St. Paul’s as my church home. “Music is from God,” he once declared to us, an echo of my belief that it is surely the greatest evidence for His existence.
Being of recent vintage (both as Christian and St. Paul’s parishioner) I had no notion of the world of St. Paul’s before I walked through the door during Pentecost in 2011. According to those who eulogized him at the service, his knowledge of ecclesiastical music—especially Anglican—was truly astounding.
In the summer of 2012, with the choir on vacation, Elizabeth and I joined a vocal workshop he organized. I like to think it was an audition to join St. Paul’s superb choir. But sadly, about three weeks in, an enigmatic vampirical malady hooked its fangs in me and stayed until the fall. Afterward, I hoped he would start his workshop up again, but that didn’t happen.
Instead there came a Sunday when he approached me after services, his face aglow, and asked, “Thom! Would you and Elizabeth consider joining the bell choir we’re starting!?”
David was one of the few people to get my puckish, punnish humor. After I once dropped one of my god-offal puns, his eyes froze and he heaved a little Anglican sigh as he turned to my wife: “Oh, you poor dear . . . how do you live with that?”
Jeff Bellamy, our bell director is nicknamed “Paco” and David couldn’t have been more delighted when I suggested we call our bell choir “Paco-Bells.” (The idea was shelved as being a bit silly for St. Paul’s august chambers and sacred mission.)
Elizabeth and I stayed with the bell choir for over a year. Through some mysterious workings, my last day on bells, February 7, was also the day David and Ed were married in St. Paul’s. I couldn’t have been prouder to play for them. I managed to attend, as a “civilian,” David’s retirement concert that May.
David also me to read my first Dorothy Sayers novel, The Nine Tailors. I didn’t much care for that one, but I was not surprised to later learn that David was a deep fan of the sub-genre of Golden Age Mysteries, with the largest collection of twentieth-century British whodunits and thrillers I’ve ever seen. I was only able to give it a cursory inspection when we attended a dinner party at his Oakland home in the fall of 2015. That too is a fine memory, tinged with a little regret that we didn’t talk more.
When his mother passed a few years ago, I offered my condolences. His face glowing, he said, “You know how it happened? She opened her arms to it!”
At the end of Saturday night’s service, as David’s ashes were carried out to “For All the Saints” with the bells chiming over, one of the ringers called out “This is for you, David!”
No one in the church heard the cry . . . but, surely, it was heard.
Copyright 2017 by Thomas Burchfield