Albuquerque, N.M. – When 91-year-old Theone Fife drove herself to our interview last April, she seemed much younger than her actual age. About five feet three inches tall, using a cane to walk, she exhibited a clarity of mind and spunky attitude that both surprised and impressed me.
Born in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1925, she grew up in Fort Laramie, once a 19th– century trading post, diplomatic site, and refuge for pioneers. When her father, who taught agriculture, decided to quit his job to become a farmer, it was during a time of drought and his crop was a complete failure. These were hard times, during the Great Depression, so he held an auction, sold the family possessions, and moved to Willard, Utah (which was as far as they could afford to travel).
Eventually, in 1942, the family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where her father worked as a soil conservationist and she attended Albuquerque High School. It was during this time that Fife met a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although Fife and her family were not members of the Church, she was invited to attend meetings. Soon Fife began playing on a “small, inferior pipe organ” for the LDS Church at the Spruce Street Chapel. She also played the organ for a Jewish synagogue and the Baptist Church.
She met her husband Glade Fife at an LDS Church building, they started to date, and married when she was 18 years old. He then moved away to be trained as a Navy pilot during World War II, where he eventually flew a large flying boat/plane, the Martin Mars, which landed on water. During this time, she lived with her parents for about three years.
While her husband was in training, Theone Fife pursued a degree in Applied Music at the University of New Mexico. Although she had very little formal training, which included studying piano with Mildred Alexander for about two years, she had excellent teachers at UNM. Her most influential professors were George Robert, an eminent Austrian Jewish pianist who left Nazi Germany; Nina Ancona, who “helped me play the organ correctly”; and John Donald Robb, who taught her composition and discovered that she had perfect pitch.
Once Glade Fife graduated and received his commission as an Ensign in the Navy, Theone moved from Albuquerque to join him in Florida. She left the university in New Mexico, lacking only one semester to graduate, and did not complete her degree.
Fife joined the LDS Church in July 1946, and then she and her husband drove to Salt Lake City to speak personally with David O. McKay, who served as Second Counselor in the First Presidency. They obtained special permission from him to be sealed in the St. George Temple within weeks of her becoming a member of the Church.
Fife and her husband eventually settled in the North Valley in Albuquerque, where he was a partner with her father in the family business, Thatcher’s Dairy. After her father’s death, they sold the business, subdivided the 22 acres into lots, and built Southwest homes in the area. She still lives in one of these houses, all of which she designed herself. Now a widow, she and her husband had three children.
Fife served many years as a pianist and organist in the LDS Church. She also taught numerous students, about 200, many of whom learned the basics of organ playing in a short, 6-week course. Some of her students went on to become organists in various congregations in the Albuquerque area and elsewhere. Marji Tucker explained, “She taught my mother to play the organ, and then my mother became the organist in Bernalillo.”
In 1953, the older, less adequate organ was replaced by a newer pipe organ at the Spruce Street Chapel. It was one of about 50 pipe organs the LDS Church installed throughout the West during this time, and it was the only one provided for a building in New Mexico. Fife explained that organist Vida Hutchings “spearheaded the effort to procure the organ for us here in Albuquerque.” This organ (Opus 561) was purchased from Balcom and Vaughan Pipe Organs, Inc., located in Everett, Washington, and it is listed in the Organ Historical Society (OHS) Database, ID 52280. Fife began playing this organ once it was installed.
Eventually the Spruce Street Chapel was sold, and this pipe organ was moved to the brand new chapel at 1100 Montaño Road NW in 1977. Fife said that she and LDS Church leader Tony Knudsen both “resisted pressure to install an electric organ, an Allen, in favor of retaining the pipe organ.” They also worked together to decide on the placement of the organ. The pipes (with 6 ranks) were installed on the north side of the chapel, the console (with 2 manuals) was situated to the east, and the large centrifugal fan/blower (which provided air needed for the pipes) was put under the choir seats.
Since its installation, William S. Hesterman has tuned the organ and been involved with its maintenance. He was aware that the Church wanted to refurbish its pipe organs, so he encouraged the leaders in the Albuquerque area to request that this organ be refurbished. Upon approval of the project, the organ console was temporarily removed to be worked on in early 2016 and then later returned to the Montaño Chapel in November 2016 when the task was completed.
Many local members of the Church have fond memories of Fife playing this organ for church services during the years. Susan Fuller remarked, “She is like the queen of this organ.” Susan Kirkpatrick, who knew Fife her entire life, said of her, “She was always there playing the piano or playing the organ. She was a vital part of the congregation.”
Fife, with her feisty yet humble demeanor, has influenced the lives of many people through her musical talents and in general. Even in her early nineties, she continues to move forward with grace and style despite life’s obstacles. After our interview, as I walked with her to the door of the church building, she adeptly walked down the steps toward her car and drove away.