By Julie Strauss Bettinger
Special to The Index
THOMASVILLE — As a child, Margaret Cox Grady always told her family when she grew up, she wanted to live anywhere but Georgia. Why? “Because Georgia is just too hot.”
And yet that’s where she’s made her home the last 50 years as organist for First Baptist Church of Thomasville. The church community will celebrate Grady’s half century of service on Sunday, Sept. 25 with a “Festival of Congregational Singing” in the newly-renovated sanctuary. It will include performances by a guest artist on the church’s recently re-installed organ.
Grady is looking forward to being in the congregation for a change.
Vital from the beginning
When Grady relocated to Thomasville from Lakeland, FL in 1966, her full-time job was organist and music associate. She also taught piano, worked with youth, and provided administrative support. “I even edited the church bulletin,” she said.
After marrying Wiley Grady, they started their family and she became part-time organist and music assistant. So far, she has served under four pastors and four ministers of music.
“Margaret started here one month before I was born,” said Andy Daughtry, Thomasville Baptist’s associate pastor of Worship and Media. “The irony of that is quite funny and it’s not lost on her.”
Daughtry, who has headed up music ministry at First Baptist since 2013, said even after 50 years, “Margaret is still a vital part of our ministry.”
Having fingers on the keyboard came early to Grady. “I started piano lessons when I was three,” she said, “so I don’t even remember learning how to play the piano. It’s like you don’t remember how you learned to walk.”
As a nine-year-old, Grady was accompanying choirs at school and church. Very soon after, she started filling in for the organist at Southside Baptist in Lakeland. And somewhere along the way, she knew it was to be her vocation.
“When I was 13, I felt like the Lord was leading me into full-time Christian service,” Grady said. “He blessed me with this talent and I dedicated it back to him, to lead me wherever he wanted me to go.”
Even if it meant moving to Georgia, it seems.
Grady graduated from Stetson University with a degree in Church Music. Her major instrument was the organ and a connection through a roommate helped her land in Thomasville.
Though fresh out of college, she was not intimidated by performing before a large audience at the church. “I was playing in piano recitals since I was four, so you could say I’ve had a lot of training on how to handle nerves.”
Kathryn Kelly Upton studied under Grady as a high schooler and her family has been friends with Grady since she was five years old. She credits Grady’s influence for helping her win several music scholarships and said she has taught her more than anyone else about work ethic, discipline, and the importance of advanced preparation.
Upton worked alongside Grady as a pianist for 23 years and sees her as one of the most influential people in her life. “She lives biblically; she’s never strayed from her faith.”
Grady makes no apologies for her high standards. “Some people say I’m a perfectionist,” she said. “Most musicians probably are. We’re very detailed oriented. I make a lot of lists.”
However, that high expectation and perfectionism is only part of the story. “She is one of the funniest, most charming women you will ever meet in your life,” said Daughtry. She cuts up with him all the time. “But when she leads a rehearsal, it’s all business,” he added.
For an organist to last this long in today’s world is testimony to Grady’s adaptability, said Rick Jordan. He worked closely with Grady as minister of music and youth from 1973 to 2013. Church music has undergone a vast number of changes, blending the traditional with the contemporary. But in the midst of the changes, “Margaret was always gracious, she was willing to put the mission before the music,” he said.
Jordan and his wife, Margie, have been close friends and their children grew up together. “She’s the sister I never had,” said Jordan, whose only sister died shortly after birth. They even call each other “sister” and “brother.”
Staying the course
People often mistakenly believe you just sit down and play, Jordan said. But music ministry requires hours and hours of practice each week and involves working nights, weekends, weddings, and funerals – sometimes on short notice. All this in addition to study in order to keep up with the changes.
Playing the organ is also physically demanding, said Daughtry, which makes it more amazing that Grady has been able to stay the course. She’s had both knees, both hips, and one shoulder replaced. “I outlived the parts in one of my hips,” she said, which meant another hip replacement this past January.
Grady was back at the organ in two weeks or less after the surgeries. That may explain her nickname: “The Super Bionic Woman.”
Asked about retirement, she says the Lord hasn’t given her a timeline. And she’s told Daughtry it’s not up to her, anyway: “You serve and you serve until God gives you the go-ahead to stop.”