Alyssa Sutton

Mary Helen Garoutte of La Grande has played the piano most of her life, and the last 40 years playing the organ at the Presbyterian Church.

Garoutte was born in Portland, but her family moved to Imbler when she was a year old. She attended school in Imbler and graduated from Imbler High School, then attended what is now Eastern Oregon University, where she studied piano for a year.

“I wanted to be a teacher,” she said.

She put those plans aside, though, after she met George Garoutte, her future husband.

“George was (at the college) for two years on the GI Bill,” she said.

When they were married, the Garouttes spent some time in Stanfield and Pendleton before moving back to the La Grande area, where Garoutte was a homemaker and they raised four children.

During that time, Florence Miller –– who was a music teacher at a local elementary school and played music at the Presbyterian Church –– asked Garoutte to sing in the church choir.

“She couldn’t pay me for that, but she gave me voice lessons instead,” Garoutte said.

Miller was elected as president of the La Grande Choral Club in 1942, and Garoutt accompanied the children in some of Miller’s programs.

Garoutte sang in the choir for several years, and in 1978 the church asked her if she would consider being the church organist.

“I’d played the piano all of my life but never the organ,” Garoutte said. “I took lessons for about five years from
Lanetta Paul, who is the organist at the Methodist Church. And now I’ve been playing the organ for the Presbyterian Church for 40 years.”

On Feb. 11, the La Grande First Presbyterian Church will honor Garoutte for the time she has given to serving the church.

“I’m just tickled,” Garoutte, who is 85, said. “And I’ll still be playing in the service, so it will be fun.”

Church is not the only place Garoutte has used her musical talents.

She said she acted in college plays after being encouraged to audition for “Fiddler on the Roof” at Eastern Oregon University, several years after attending the college herself.

Later in Garoutte’s life she was involved in several musicals including “The King and I,” “The Secret Garden” and “Into the Woods,” along with two of her children.

“I’ve gotten a great sense of enjoyment out of musicals. It was kind of an offshoot of a career, not that you get paid for it,” she said with a laugh.

See complete story in Monday's Observer