Since he began walking, Mike Henry’s life has been enveloped by music.
His grandmother played the piano by ear. His mother enrolled him in the children’s choir when he was a preschooler. By age 8, he was taking lessons from the church organist, Nell Dickey Bowen.
“She was a no-hold’s barred teacher,” Henry said as he leaned back in his chair, remembering his first music teacher, who he lovingly called Miss Nell. “You couldn’t fake your way through the lessons.”
During his public school education, his love of music grew. He played the trombone in the school band and sang tenor in the chorus.
Little did he know all of these influences were part of God’s plan for him.
That plan and all of its pieces finally fell into place when Henry was at Lake Junaluska, N.C.
“I really heard God telling me this is where you are headed,” Henry said, adding he was heading into a life of music ministry. “All of this (music) was for a reason and not just for your personal enjoyment. It was to prepare (me) for my work and this type of ministry.”
Since then, Henry has spent his career in various musical roles at a handful of churches in the South. For the past 23 years, he has been the director of music at First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville.
Henry’s tenure, however, is finally coming to an end. The 62-year-old will retire Sunday, Dec. 13, after the 11 a.m. service.
Henry used a piece from Johann Sebastian Bach as the reason for his decision to relinquish his full-time position.
“Bach wrote a cantata called ‘God’s time is the best time,’” Henry said. “That’s my answer.”
His announcement to retire caught at least one of his choir members by surprise.
“Mike has been a tremendous asset for our church,” John Melvin said. “We hate to see him retire.”
The 75-year-old has known Henry since he took over the musical program from the previous director, Michael O’Neal. In fact, Melvin was on the committee who interviewed Henry for the job and ultimately hired him.
“Michael O’Neal knew him real well and gave him high marks,” Melvin said, adding he had a good feeling about Henry after the initial interview. “I thought “Yes, he is the man (for the job). And he turned out to be the man.”
Melvin is not alone in his opinion. First Presbyterian’s interim pastor, Jasper “Jep” Keith, praised Henry’s accomplishments after serving with him on two separate occasions.
“Mike is delightful, enjoyable, a gifted musician, a skilled choral director, extremely knowledgeable and a wonderful piano player,” he said. “He can play 400 hymns from memory.”
Keith said during one Wednesday night service, he told the congregation to call out 10 different hymns for Henry to play from memory.
“I told them if Mike couldn’t play one, then I would contribute a certain amount (of money) to the building fund. I didn’t have to contribute a dime,” Keith said with a chuckle.
Henry’s knowledge and love of music has helped the church’s musical talents grow.
“He has a knack of getting people to give of themselves to the choir,” Melvin said. “We don’t have many people leave the choir. Most of the time you age out or move away. It’s amazing what he’s done with the voices he’s had.”
Some of those accomplishments include taking the First Presbyterian Church chancel choir around the country and globe to sing at premiere locations. The choir has sung for the Georgia convention of the American Choral Directors Association and a Manhattan Concert Production at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. In April, the choir traveled to Italy and performed at a Mass in the Vatican.
However, it is the “week in and week out” worship services that mean the most to Henry.
“It is knowing what you and others labor for and contribute to the church,” he said.
That sentiment rings true for his singers.
“Some musicians are real high-strung and don’t have much patience with singers,” Melvin said. “But Mike, he wants to accomplish ... he wants his singers to reach their potential.
“He can be demanding, but rehearsals are fun,” he continued. “He wants to do his best to have a quality product.”
And his final product will be the Christmas portion of Handel’s “Messiah.”
“And that will be his magna opus,” Keith said.