Ownby continues to serve

Published 3:13 pm Thursday, May 24, 2018

David Ownby has been the choir director for his church, Fitzgerald Memorial Baptist, for half as long as the church has been in existence.

The church on 14 Fitzgerald Road recently celebrated its 90th anniversary. Ownby was choir director for 45 years. The church presented him with a plaque during his retirement.

Ownby no longer leads the choir. Having just retired on April 29, Ownby chooses now to sing in the back, letting his voice meld with the other dozen or so members as they lead with hymns on Sunday mornings with a pianist and organist.

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Ownby, 82, credits the love his father had for Southern Gospel music for inspiring him to pursue his own music.

“He started me out when I was about 4 years old,” Ownby said, saying his father taught him how to read music.

He said his father passed away as he was starting with Fitzgerald Memorial.

Ownby said the skills his father taught stayed with him, later learning how to play the five-string banjo. As an adult, he even took up the guitar.

Not only was Ownby the church’s choir director for more than four decades, he was the founding choir director, helping start the music program with several others.

Barry Vassar, pastor of Fitzgerald Memorial Baptist Church, said he appreciated Ownby’s talent and humility.

“To be such a good singer, he’s a quiet man,” Vassar said. “He’s a humble man. He does a lot more at the church than just leading the choir.” He noted that Ownby served on the church’s leadership team and has not accepted payment for being involved with the choir.

“Just a person who loves music, who loves church, and just enjoys being up there singing and leading people singing,” Vassar said.

Ownby, in a phone interview, protested with Jean Ownby, his wife, about whether the church had had a choir before.

“We’ve never had a choir,” Jean Ownby said, before Ownby became choir director.

“We’ve never had a choir,” Ownby said. “Anyway, we got one started.”

Ownby grew up in Buckingham County, working on the family farm, Bellmond Farm.

In 1955, Ownby said he served in the Army, traveling to Taiwan where he said he was stationed for two years.

He was later discharged after returning to the states at Fort Lee in 1958. Ownby said he returned to Buckingham, his childhood home, while finding another way to incorporate music into his life.

He, his brother Lloyd, his brother’s brother-in-law, Dee Waycaster, and Waycaster’s daughter, Kathy, started a quartet, and named it after the church they were attending at the time: Cedar Quartet. Lloyd’s son, Dale, played the piano.

He said the Cedar Quartet traveled around the area and put on a show at whichever place would have them. Lloyd sang bass, Dee baritone, Kathy alto and Ownby was lead.

“We had a good time,” Ownby said, “and we all loved the Lord.”

They sang together for five years.

Following his and Jean Ownby’s marriage, Ownby said they moved to Cumberland, and he credits Jean for building what would be the home where they have lived for decades.

“We built it in 1970, and we’ve been living here ever since,” Ownby said.

That was when they also attended the church Jean attended for most of her life: Fitzgerald Memorial Baptist.

Ownby said one of his favorite memories of the choir was during one Christmas in the 1980s. He and the choir decided to perform the “Hallelujah Chorus” from George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” during a county Christmas tree lighting as well as at Fitzgerald and other churches in the area.

Ownby said the weeks of practice paid off and described it as an experience that filled him with awe.

“It was really beautiful,” Ownby said. “It made you feel chills go up your back. It was really something to think that God could take a bunch of country folks and do that.”

Demonstrating what Vassar said about his humility, Ownby said he did not want to take credit for the choir or quartet.

“I told people when they would come up and start talking to me about how great I was with that choir, and I’m going to tell you what I told them,” Ownby said. “The people in the choir did the work. I stood up front and waved my hands.”

“Everybody had a hand in this, in the choir and the quartet,” Ownby said. “I didn’t do it. I had help from everyone.”