Obituary: Lucille Sarafian Keeler

Concert pipe organist, first music master’s graduate of Claremont Graduate University

Lucille Sarafian Keeler, concert pipe organist, church musician, music teacher, first music master’s graduate of Claremont Graduate University, music organization leader, and mother and grandmother died at home under the care of her loved ones on May 27, 2019.

Ms. Keeler held great love for her family, had great delight in music and had strong commitment to the community. She was a shining light in the lives of all who knew her.

Ms. Keeler was born April 8, 1925, on her parents’ Van Nuys walnut orchard, in a home built by her father, who was a professor at La Verne College. The distance made it so he was only able to come home on weekends.

Ms. Keeler said her family of two sisters and a brother practiced subsistence farming during the depression, “My folks would raise their own food—rabbits, chickens,” Ms. Keeler said. “We had gardens. My parents were very thrifty.”

The next-door neighbor was the actress Gloria Swanson, a vegetarian and health food advocate. It was during Ms. Swanson’s visits to buy walnuts that she identified musical talent in the young Ms. Keeler and prompted her parents to encourage her in that direction.

In 1930, her parents purchased a Fifth Street La Verne house for $2,500, which allowed the family to be together. In 1936, they opened a private school in a three-story home, moved from its original location at the corner of Garey Avenue and Holt Boulevard, to the Montclair border.

Her mother was in charge as principal of “Horace Mann School,” and Ms. Keeler completed her elementary and high school education here, with a brief interruption when the flood of 1938 ripped through their backyard. Her parents, not wanting to experience that again, sold the Holt Avenue house, looking for a new location on a hill. The family moved to a 1912 house in Claremont, where Ms. Keeler lived for the rest of her life, and where the private school continued for a few more years.

She matriculated at La Verne College during the war years. Her father was head of the education department at the small college, and she found herself again in many of his classes as she studied to be an elementary school teacher. She also focused on her other major: music, which was headed by the celebrated Ralph Travis, who had had a robust undergraduate pipe organ program. Ms. Keeler flourished in this environment, starting her first job at the La Verne Church of the Brethren as Mr. Travis’ summer replacement. She graduated from La Verne College cum laude in 1945, with a class that holds the distinction of not having a single male.

She began her music master’s studies at the University of Southern California under the tutelage of Irene Robertson. But a music master’s program was starting at Claremont Graduate University under the direction of the renowned William Blanchard. Lucille transferred to CGU and completed her master’s degree in May 1949, holding the distinction of being the first CGU music master’s graduate.

The pieces she performed in her October 1948 master’s concert included “Chorale in A Minor” by Cesar Franck; “Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach; “Sonata Chromatica,” by Pietro Yon; all were difficult, and she took pride in performing her recital pieces in concert again in her early 80s.

A couple weeks before Ms. Keeler’s October 1948 master’s recital at Mabel Shaw Bridges, a high voltage electrical short in the pipe organ keyboard caused her to be launched from the organ bench and thrown backwards three pews into the auditorium. She was found unconscious, and later learned that the organ was being serviced, and that electrical wires were exposed; unfortunately she had not been told. She went ahead with the concert. That accident started her once a week life-long visits to a chiropractor. 

Her master’s thesis, “A Chronological Survey of the Development of the Pipe Organ,” is considered a seminal work that holds a lively check out record at the Claremont College’s Honnold Library.

At CGU, Ms. Keeler met her future husband, Robert, who was manager of the Coop Fountain at the Claremont Colleges. Mr. Keeler was a World War II staff sergeant vet who saw Battle of the Bulge action in Patton’s 10th Armored Division, first as a medic, then in the heat of combat as a tank commander.

Lucille and Robert were married at Webb Chapel, June 12, 1949, the second couple ever married in the Chapel. Thompson and Vivian Webb were family friends, and Lucille remembers that they honored her by making the chapel available, lighting all the candles, and decorating it with beautiful linens and rugs.

Teaching jobs were hard to find close to home, and Ms. Keeler first taught elementary school in Compton, then in Fontana. But she soon left elementary teaching to engage in her music passion. She began her career as a church organist, which took her to many denominations and churches in Pomona Valley and the Inland Empire. She also served as chapel organist for the Webb Schools and for Todd Memorial Chapel. In addition, she performed many weddings in a multitude of churches and chapels and performed at many graduation ceremonies.

Ms. Keeler was a sought after music teacher. Hundreds of children and adults studied piano, organ and voice with her, and she took pride in driving to their houses to lead the weekly lessons.

During her active career, she held a longtime organist position at First Mennonite Church in Upland. She then held a 24-year organist position at First Church of Christ Scientist, West Covina, until the church’s closing. Her last longtime church organ job was at First Church of Christ Scientist, Pomona, until that church also closed its doors in 2003 on its 100th anniversary. Ms. Keeler then resumed her substitute organist role. 

Ms. Keeler led as dean of the American Guild of Organists, Inland Empire Chapter, which involved program planning, speaking, performance playing plus frequent leadership trips to Riverside, San Bernardino and Palm Springs. Her chapter hosted the organization’s western regional convention during her tenure because of her guild building efforts.

For 40 years, she held leadership positions in the Community Concerts Association, which brought high level performing groups to Gardner Springs Auditorium. She is credited with building up the membership in that organization through her infectious enthusiasm. The organization recognized her achievement by awarding her honorary life membership.

The Musicians’ Club of Pomona Valley was her special love. She led as president and continually served on the executive board. For her service, the club bestowed upon her honorary life membership. Young musicians are encouraged through the organization’s annual John Child Walker Competition, in which she gave strong leadership. Ms. Keeler’s annual Christmas gala in her home for more than 100 club members and guests was filled with singing, organ and piano music.

Lucille is survived by her sons George (Jeanette) and Richard (Lori); grandchildren Nathan and Rebecca; and sister Grace Ridley. She was predeceased by her brother Armen Sarafian, past president of the University of La Verne and Pasadena City College; and sister Marie Beloian.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, July 13 at the La Verne Church of the Brethren, 2425 E St., La Verne. A light lunch will follow.

Her family suggests donations to the University of La Verne, Kevork Sarafian  Scholarship or to the Musicians’ Club of Pomona Valley, John Child Walker Competition.


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