George L. Collins installed more than 300 pipe organs during his career. At upward of one month per instrument, that's a lot of time spent in organ chambers.
Born in Wingate Township in Union County, N.C., in 1935, Mr. Collins was a longtime resident of Peters and had repaired organs in both the Charlotte, N.C., and Pittsburgh areas.
Mr. Collins died Saturday at Canonsburg General Hospital of lung cancer. He was 71.
Mr. Collins answered a newspaper ad for an organ repairman while attending Oakhurst High School in Oakhurst Township, N.C., 55 years ago. At the time, he was just looking for a job, said his wife of 52 years, Jane Collins. But he quickly became attached to the world of organ installation and repair.
After a few years, the couple moved to the Pittsburgh area from their native North Carolina so that Mr. Collins would have to travel less for his job. In Pittsburgh, Mrs. Collins noted, "there's a church on every corner."
Mr. Collins knew how to get others interested in his work. Whenever he entered a church, he would loudly yell "Organ man!" on his way to the faulty instrument, said friend and fellow repairman David Richards.
And "he knew the organ, and he knew how to explain it in English," said the Rev. Carl Gentile of St. John Fisher Church in Churchill. Mr. Collins had been repairing the church's organ for longer than the 13 years Father Gentile has been at the church.
Bill Siedle, another organ repairman, recalls being stumped by a particularly stubborn instrument. He called Mr. Collins to come for a consultation. Mr. Collins went straight to the organ and identified the problem in just minutes.
"In this day and age, there are so many people who claim to be the best at something," said Mr. Siedle, "but he really was."
Mr. Collins' dedication to organ repair continued even though cancer plagued the last years of his life. He worked through colon cancer in 2004, and kept working even during the more recent fight with lung cancer. He had his right lung removed in January, and within days of getting out of the hospital, drove more than a hundred miles by himself to fix an organ in DuBois, according to his wife.
"He felt that he owed it to the churches," she said.
While organs may have dominated Mr. Collins' life, he still had enough time to be an active father to his three children, coaching many different sports -- "everything but soccer," said Mrs. Collins -- and leading Cub Scout troops. Mr. Collins also golfed and enjoyed the outdoors.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Collins is survived by two sons, George L. Collins Jr. of San Diego and James Collins of Washington, Pa.; one daughter, Peggi Collins of Mount Juliet, Tenn.; three sisters, Ethel Gillespie of Concord, N.C., Frances Ellis of Pembroke, Ga., and Shirley Gregory of Stallings, N.C.; one brother, Wade Collins of Charlotte; and one granddaughter.
Services are at 2 p.m. today at Northside Baptist Church in Charlotte.
Memorial contributions may be made to the American Cancer Society, P.O. Box 22718, Oklahoma City, OK 73123.
Michael Birnbaum can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2533.