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Dean C. Zenor

If you called our shop to ask for information for a new organ project, chances are you spoke with Dean Zenor. If you are a newspaper reporter doing research for a story about an installation of one of our organs, chances are Dean gave you the details. If you are the owner of a Dobson organ and want a replacement value for your insurance, chances are Dean told you the current figure. Many know Dean only through telephone conversations, and some of them have jokingly wondered whether he exists. Is he in fact a real person? Who is this enigma?

Dean Zenor was born in Ipswich, England, the son of a United States Air Force captain. At the age of two, he moved with his family to Des Moines, Iowa, when his father, an aeronautical engineer, entered the private sector. His father engendered in his son a love of aviation; although no longer current, Dean holds a private pilot’s license, and can identify virtually any airplane of any age.

The organ bug bit when Dean was in high school, and his parents, in a display of indulgence, allowed him to purchase a used Estey pipe organ, which he installed in the basement with copious assistance from G.A. Audsley. During high school Dean worked as a draftsman for Robert Arndt, a supplier of pipe organ parts in nearby Ankeny. After Dean’s high school graduation, his father took a position in Hartford, Connecticut, and Dean obtained summer employment at Austin Organs, Inc. After graduation from the University of Northern Iowa with a degree in humanities and a minor in music, Dean returned to a permanent position with Austin. In 1984, he was offered a place in the drawing office, where he worked until 1990. With the desire to start a family, Dean and his wife Deb sought a friendlier place to raise their children, and the idea of moving back to their home state took hold. (Dean’s family has roots of long-standing in Iowa; Zenorsville, located seventy miles from Lake City and now a ghost town, was once a site of coal mining in Boone County.)

From the moment he started work at our shop, Dean attracted an almost indescribable variety of jobs. For many years, he responded to inquiries for new organs, a task now handled by his colleague John Ourensma. Dean, a conscientious tuner, is our service manager, arranging the care of the seventy-plus pipe organs we maintain. He keeps his drafting skills sharp by preparing the perspective renderings of organs presented to clients. His graphics skills find further expression in Photoshop image preparation and CAD, and the layout of advertising. Though he rarely builds any part of an organ, his wide-ranging knowledge of organ construction is essential for estimating costs. It’s a common misunderstanding that organ builders simply take the number of stops or ranks and multiply them by some magical formula. In fact, every aspect of a Dobson organ is estimated individually, taking into account the instrument’s physical arrangement, its visual design, and even such factors as whether it’s in a balcony (where more installation time will be required because of steps and the need for hoisting). Most of these important tasks go on behind the scenes, out of public view.

A special area of tracker organ construction that is rarely mentioned is the regulation of the mechanical key action. Dean’s attention to detail and his experience with over twenty different instruments have made him the shop guru in this area. It is a process that is conceptually similar to tonal finishing: once the organ is installed, Dean records the pressure necessary to break the top resistance, or pluck, of each key, and the weight needed to hold it down. Then he adjusts each pallet spring, and the balancier if one is fitted to that note. After all notes are adjusted, there are further rounds of measuring and adjustment until each keyboard has a consistent progression of weight and response from bass to treble. This process may take the better part of a week for a three-manual organ, and is indispensable for a truly satisfactory mechanical action. Combined with careful engineering, Dean’s efforts make it possible to enjoy a responsive mechanical action even with a detached console.

Dean has a healthy regard for old things, and has at various times collected clocks, cornets and automobiles. A spare hour or two during a road trip is always an opportunity for antiquing. He and his family (wife Deb, daughter Karel, and son David) are restoring one of the oldest buildings in Lake City, the Andrew Grant House, parts of which date to the 1870s. The house (complete with oil lamps, several wood stoves and a G.E. monitor top refrigerator), a number of historic outbuildings, a collection of old outhouses (one a four-holer with art glass window), a windmill, a rabbit hutch, an assortment of cats, and a small orchard fill his two-acre property on the southern edge of the city, the quiet refuge of a country squire.

It’s all quite real for a person thought by some to be just a telephone voice. Dean’s very tangible contributions are a vital part of the Dobson organ.

drawn from The Organbuilder, Fall 2007


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Dobson Pipe Organ Builders, Ltd.
200 North Illinois Street • Post Office Box 25
Lake City, Iowa 51449 USA
+1 712 464 8065

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