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Moments in Time: Deborah Krauss Smith
Deborah Krauss Smith. To order this photo, click here. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - Finding what you love to do early in life doesn't always fall into place. But for Deborah Krauss Smith, that's exactly what happened. She has been surrounded by music since before she started school, and sharing her gift has put that love back into the hands of the community, children and the church.

She was born in Monroe and lived in town, attending the old Lincoln grade school. Smith has fond memories of the park, biking in the summertime and spending almost every day at the pool.

She is the oldest of three children. Church was very close to home and always played an important role in her family life. Smith grew up as part of the Emmanuel Evangelical United Brethren, now the United Methodist Church.

Her mother was in the church choir and Smith and her siblings sang in the children's choir. When Smith came home from kindergarten, she would often play tunes from the songs she learned at school on the old family piano. That natural ability led to lessons starting before first grade, and Smith recalls taking her first lessons with a neighbor, Alma Thorpe.

There was something about the church organ that always spoke to Smith, she said, and she often enjoyed checking out the instrument. By the time she reached eighth grade, the organ became her primary interest and she switched her lessons.

It was the beginning of a lifelong relationship with the organ.

"I liked the literature of the organ," Smith said of why she was so drawn to it.

In high school, she taught piano lessons for extra money. By then, she had been accompanying church and school choruses for so long, she was the go-to person when someone was needed to play. As a sophomore in high school, Smith was hired by the Union Presbyterian Church to be its organist.

She continued teaching private lessons, which allowed her to put herself through college. She graduated near the top of her class in 1973 from Monroe High School, and then attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

"Sometimes you know early on that you're on a life path for something," Smith said. "And I knew mine was music."

Eau Claire was a perfect fit for Smith. She earned her bachelor's degree in music education with a vocal emphasis in 1977. At the time, career options were slim for musicians, so she made a plan to teach but then go back to graduate school for something organ-related. She applied to various places, but she really wanted a teaching job that involved a church.

During college, she had been an organist at a church in Eau Claire and still loved the instrument. She interviewed in two places, but took a teaching job in Monroe as an elementary music specialist and also as a church organist. She was a traveling teacher and taught at a few schools in Monroe and the surrounding area that have all since closed.

Soon she and her husband, Greg, were married. After seven years of teaching, some of the rural schools were closing, others were combining and jobs were being cut. Her position was down to half time, and Smith decided to leave teaching but continued working at the United Methodist Church as the organist, children's choir director and hand bell director, a position she would keep for nine years. During that time she also directed the senior center choir for three years.

In 1986, she was offered a position at St. John's United Church of Christ as organist and director of music. She spent the next decade building St. John's music program and eventually, the church had an adult choir, two children's choirs, a high school choir, a hand bell choir and a women's ensemble.

She's proud of those developments.

"To this day, I feel good about my years there," Smith said. "Some of the kids have gone on to become musicians or are still involved in church music in some way."

After 10 years, Smith left St. John's and went to work in Madison at the Asbury United Methodist Church. The large congregation hired her on as the organist. A few years later, she took the role as the director of music there until the end of 2006. It was another great decade where she loved the congregation, she said, but left eventually when the pastoral leadership changed.

After that, Smith was technically retired, and she was content. She had taught private lessons in her home until the late 1990s and served as a judge for the Wisconsin School Music Association for several years. Church music had changed greatly, and Smith said she was happy to start taking care of things at home that she never had time for before.

"Music and churches have changed and some people are missing hearing the organ and the great hymns of faith," Smith said.

But soon enough, that changed when St. John's in Monroe called her and asked if she would return.

"I thought hard about that," Smith said. "It was not in my plans, but I knew them and they knew me. The minister was a friend of mine and it was my home church."

She agreed to go back to the position but only until the minister retired. The transition was seamless, she said, and although the landscape of church music was still changing, she took it in stride.

She retired - again - in May of 2013.

Smith is still involved at St. John's in many ways: She fills in for the organist and is also part of a singing trio called Circle of Friends, an off-shoot of a women's trio she started at St. John's several years before. The group will have its Christmas CD released next month.

Since 1984, Smith has been involved in the Madison Association of Church Musicians. She served as its secretary for several years and in the early 2000s, she became its webmaster and did other behind-the-scenes work. In 2014, she joined the board again as its vice president and now serves as its president after being asked to help the group get back on track in recent years.

Smith was asked to direct the Monroe Swiss Singers in 1985 and is still leading them. Because her grandmother is from Switzerland, she decided to say yes but admits she knew little about her heritage at the time. After three decades, Smith still enjoys the group where she's made lasting friendships, traveled frequently and learned much about her own heritage.

Every three years, the Swiss Singers attend a festival and competition with other choirs as part of the North American Swiss Singers Alliance. In 2003, it was hosted by the New Glarus Yodel Club and the festival was held in New Glarus and Monroe. Smith was asked to be the mass choir director along with directing the Swiss Singers, a huge undertaking with hundreds of singers, which she saw as an honor.

Smith is also in her 15th year of mini recitals called the Midday Masterworks held every few months in Monroe. In 2002, Smith started the organ series at the United Methodist Church in Monroe after the church installed a 39-ring pipe organ but had no organist. Smith saw it as a shame and decided to feature the instrument, bringing in literature for the instrument no one would otherwise hear. Smith performs the themed program at St. Victor Catholic Church as well.

One privilege and honor Smith also holds dearly has been being invited to lead two community hymn sings at the Overture Center in Madison. The organ in the hall is owned by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which holds free community offerings. Smith held her first one in 2012 and was invited back in 2014. They were both very well attended.

"It's a pretty amazing experience to play the organ in that hall," she said. She preps the entire thing and only has three hours to prepare on the instrument. It's difficult, she said, because no two organs are exactly alike.

Traveling with the Swiss Singers eventually led to her and her husband's deep involvement with Turner Hall, and she still is very much a volunteer, filling in cracks and helping with publicity, the website, menus and graphic work. She also helps plan the Swiss programming.

As someone who loves to learn, Smith hasn't stopped over the years. She took a class at Black Hawk Tech to learn coding to help out with websites for the groups she was involved with and still runs several today. She said having immigrant grandparents made her realize the value of learning something new and how important education is.

Smith is an animal lover and has had pet goats for the past 20 years, along with cats and a dog. She also loves delving into her genealogy and feels lucky that her grandmother lived to be 96, so she was able to talk with and ask her about her past.

"My grandparents were very special to me," Smith said. "I have a real appreciation for everybody and the gifts they have - everyone has something."

She and Greg enjoy traveling, and every time they go to Switzerland, Smith said it feels like going home. Returning to her grandmother's village was a huge highlight for her. She also enjoyed her grandparents from her mother's side, and they still have a home on Lake Wisconsin where she has several childhood memories.

Smith also has helped raise money for the Alzheimer's and Dementia Alliance of Southern Wisconsin since the mid-1990s and enjoys playing the rare Swiss button accordion.

"Throughout life, you do the most you can with what you've been given," Smith said. "It doesn't do any good to wish you were someone else or somewhere else. I learned that from my immigrant grandmother - all that she went through, her life, and yet they were so grateful for what they had here. I think about that a lot."