Off the Chart

Restoring organs: making treasures out of trash

One medical oncologist spends his free time saving instruments in disrepair.

With origins dating back to Ancient Greece, the pipe organ is an instrument traditionally found in churches and synagogues. For Douglas G. McNeel, MD, PhD, pipe organs exist in an array of sizes and states — both assembled and unassembled — in the basement of his Wisconsin home.

“I have somewhere in the range of 2,000 to 3,000 pipes and several tons of parts to go along with them; it is not a small hobby,” McNeel told HemOnc Today.

As an adolescent, McNeel decided to take pipe organ lessons. He pursued his passion throughout college where he double-majored in chemistry and music while studying the pipe organ professionally. After graduation, McNeel decided to attend medical school at the University of Chicago.

However, he applied to music schools abroad and took one year off in hopes of completing a master’s program in organ performance. He settled in Paris to study the organ.

“I met several organists there and had some remarkable opportunities to play some great instruments. I stayed in Paris and lived off of a Visa card,” McNeel said.

He returned to the states early in order to re-apply to medical school. At that time, McNeel also applied to music schools. It was his “plan B” in case he was unable to get back in to medical school. According to McNeel, the organ and medicine have been “neck and neck all along.”

While back in Chicago, McNeel, who was then an organist and choir director for a church, met someone with whom to share his passion.

“I met my wife through one of her coworkers who was also a member of my choir. We were set up that way. She is an organist also, so it’s nice to have something completely different to talk about other than work,” McNeel said in an interview.

Douglas G. McNeel, MD, PhD, is a genitourinary medical oncologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine
At his day job, Douglas G. McNeel, MD, PhD, is a genitourinary medical oncologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

His passion is restoring pipe organs
... but his passion is restoring pipe organs like this one.

Source: DG McNeel

Staying busy

McNeel began acquiring pipe organs when he was in college and since then he has obtained enough organ parts to keep him busy building for decades to come. He and a college friend salvaged their first pipe organ from a condemned building on their campus.

“We asked the administration if we could have the pipe organ and they said sure, since they would be tearing the building down anyway. We took it out and it was in horrible condition, but it was like treasure for us,” he said.

After sitting in storage for almost 12 years, McNeel decided to learn how to put the instrument together. He went on to obtain an electric organ from a synagogue in New York, which he used for practice. He later built a pipe organ off of it and eventually replaced the electronics.

While living in Seattle, McNeel acquired a third pipe organ from a church. A friend and fellow organ builder who worked full-time in home remodeling helped him rebuild a door in his 70-year-old home in order to fit the console through.

“I had to work out a deal with my wife. I told her that I would finish the basement and turn it into a family room while also fitting the pipe organ through at the same time. She bought into that,” McNeel said.

Building pipe organs is a multi-year process.

“It is a flexible instrument, meaning there are no limits; you can keep adding on and on and on. I have been adding to the same project, and it has gotten bigger in scope over time,” he said.

Since moving to Wisconsin, McNeel and his family have continued to acquire pipe organs, including one that originally belonged to the famous brewing company, Pabst Brewing Company in Milwaukee.

“After it had been released from the Pabst mansion it was sent to a church. The church had roof damage and the instrument was not working properly, so they were getting rid of it. That is when I acquired it, and now that instrument is being blended into the works as well,” McNeel said.

Making time for music

Currently, McNeel is a part-time organist at a church in Madison, and in his mind, he plays “the best instrument in town.”

He also takes time to continue his pipe organ building projects, some of which have been ongoing for the last seven years. Professional organ builders may complete projects faster because they have a team, but for McNeel assembling an organ is a time-consuming yet rewarding process.

“I work alone and futz around in the basement,” McNeel said.

His children get involved with the organs, too. His son, who plays cello, wants to begin playing the organ like his parents, but McNeel says he will have to wait a while until he is old enough to reach the pedals. His daughter plays the oboe and viola, and both children are getting a bit of practice for their organ debut with the piano.

“Our family is very musical. Even if my children don’t play the organ, we’ll still be able to make a lot of music together,” McNeel said.

With origins dating back to Ancient Greece, the pipe organ is an instrument traditionally found in churches and synagogues. For Douglas G. McNeel, MD, PhD, pipe organs exist in an array of sizes and states — both assembled and unassembled — in the basement of his Wisconsin home.

“I have somewhere in the range of 2,000 to 3,000 pipes and several tons of parts to go along with them; it is not a small hobby,” McNeel told HemOnc Today.

As an adolescent, McNeel decided to take pipe organ lessons. He pursued his passion throughout college where he double-majored in chemistry and music while studying the pipe organ professionally. After graduation, McNeel decided to attend medical school at the University of Chicago.

However, he applied to music schools abroad and took one year off in hopes of completing a master’s program in organ performance. He settled in Paris to study the organ.

“I met several organists there and had some remarkable opportunities to play some great instruments. I stayed in Paris and lived off of a Visa card,” McNeel said.

He returned to the states early in order to re-apply to medical school. At that time, McNeel also applied to music schools. It was his “plan B” in case he was unable to get back in to medical school. According to McNeel, the organ and medicine have been “neck and neck all along.”

While back in Chicago, McNeel, who was then an organist and choir director for a church, met someone with whom to share his passion.

“I met my wife through one of her coworkers who was also a member of my choir. We were set up that way. She is an organist also, so it’s nice to have something completely different to talk about other than work,” McNeel said in an interview.

Douglas G. McNeel, MD, PhD, is a genitourinary medical oncologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine
At his day job, Douglas G. McNeel, MD, PhD, is a genitourinary medical oncologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

His passion is restoring pipe organs
... but his passion is restoring pipe organs like this one.

Source: DG McNeel

Staying busy

McNeel began acquiring pipe organs when he was in college and since then he has obtained enough organ parts to keep him busy building for decades to come. He and a college friend salvaged their first pipe organ from a condemned building on their campus.

“We asked the administration if we could have the pipe organ and they said sure, since they would be tearing the building down anyway. We took it out and it was in horrible condition, but it was like treasure for us,” he said.

After sitting in storage for almost 12 years, McNeel decided to learn how to put the instrument together. He went on to obtain an electric organ from a synagogue in New York, which he used for practice. He later built a pipe organ off of it and eventually replaced the electronics.

While living in Seattle, McNeel acquired a third pipe organ from a church. A friend and fellow organ builder who worked full-time in home remodeling helped him rebuild a door in his 70-year-old home in order to fit the console through.

“I had to work out a deal with my wife. I told her that I would finish the basement and turn it into a family room while also fitting the pipe organ through at the same time. She bought into that,” McNeel said.

Building pipe organs is a multi-year process.

“It is a flexible instrument, meaning there are no limits; you can keep adding on and on and on. I have been adding to the same project, and it has gotten bigger in scope over time,” he said.

Since moving to Wisconsin, McNeel and his family have continued to acquire pipe organs, including one that originally belonged to the famous brewing company, Pabst Brewing Company in Milwaukee.

“After it had been released from the Pabst mansion it was sent to a church. The church had roof damage and the instrument was not working properly, so they were getting rid of it. That is when I acquired it, and now that instrument is being blended into the works as well,” McNeel said.

Making time for music

Currently, McNeel is a part-time organist at a church in Madison, and in his mind, he plays “the best instrument in town.”

He also takes time to continue his pipe organ building projects, some of which have been ongoing for the last seven years. Professional organ builders may complete projects faster because they have a team, but for McNeel assembling an organ is a time-consuming yet rewarding process.

“I work alone and futz around in the basement,” McNeel said.

His children get involved with the organs, too. His son, who plays cello, wants to begin playing the organ like his parents, but McNeel says he will have to wait a while until he is old enough to reach the pedals. His daughter plays the oboe and viola, and both children are getting a bit of practice for their organ debut with the piano.

“Our family is very musical. Even if my children don’t play the organ, we’ll still be able to make a lot of music together,” McNeel said.