Bill Blank: Enough music and stories to fill 90 years

Allegra Thatcher, Assistant Editor.

He’s known as a piano tuner, an organist, a choir director and a lector. But few know him as a Korean war veteran, a member of the first graduating class from Covington Latin School, a proud father of six and a man who lost his wife too soon.

He might be the longest attending Mass-goer at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption (78 years), and yet he’s never officially been a member. He attended seminary before Vatican II and Thomas More University when it was still called Villa Madonna College. He wrote two Mass settings and didn’t even mention it during an interview.

And Bill Blank, now nearly 90 years old, still attends Mass every morning at the Cathedral Basilica and tunes pianos practically every day.

Not a composer by profession, Mr. Blank, whose full name is William, has composed two Mass settings — the Mass of All Saints and the Mass of the Holy Cross. A Mass setting is the words of the Mass Ordinary set to music. The Ordinary words of the Mass are the parts that do not change with the liturgical calendar — they are a part of every Mass. There are five parts to the Ordinary: Kyrie (Lord have mercy…), Gloria (Glory to God in the highest…), Credo (I believe in God the Father…), Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy…) and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God…).

In the 1960s after the Church changed the common liturgy to English, Mr. Blank said he looked at some of the Masses that were coming out in English, and said to himself, “I can do better than that.” They were quickly taken up by local churches and used “quite extensively” until about 30 years later, when the ‘Lord have mercy’ changed from three repetitions to two, which made the Masses unusable at the time.

“Having been a church organist for 50 years, I knew that the problem with congregational singing is that the people who write some of these songs and motets don’t realize that the ordinary person in the congregation isn’t a great musician and can’t sing this difficult stuff,” said Mr. Blank. “So I wrote Masses that are simple, easy to read and sing, yet devout and pleasing to God.”

Then in 2012, after the new translation of the Latin Missal was published, Mr. Blank rewrote his Masses so they would fit the new liturgies. On July 15, 2015 Bishop Roger Foys approved Mr. Blank’s Mass of All Saints and the Mass of the Holy Cross for use in the Diocese of Covington.

“They’re being used, people like them,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of comments about how good my Masses are. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I think they’re better than a lot of what’s out there.”

He’s not a well-known composer or musician, but as a choir director he often arranged old hymns for his choirs. “I’m not trying to make money off it, I’m just doing it for the honor and glory of God.”

His Mass of All Saints is in the process of being published for use outside the diocese, if family friend Rebecca Schaffer Wells has anything to do with it. Mrs. Wells’ father, Dr. Robert Schaffer, was good friends with Mr. Blank while the two of them were church musicians around the diocese. Dr. Schaffer was choirmaster and organist at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption for 62 years, a position his son, Dr. Gregory Schaffer, now holds. Dr. Schaffer also composed Masses, such as the Missa Pange Lingua and the Chorale Mass, published by the World Library of Sacred Music.

“Bill’s Mass of All Saints was one of the first ones approved for use in the diocese after the new translation in 2011,” Mrs. Wells said. She hopes to see it used across the nation soon.

Mr. Blank and her father met at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and remained friends for many years after, as they continued to run into each other across the musical circuit of the diocese. Mr. Blank even taught the younger Dr. Schaffer some of his piano technician skills, though Mrs. Wells laughed that she always calls Mr. Blank to tune her piano.

She has great admiration for Mr. Blank’s work as a piano technician. “It’s a very refined skill,” she said. “You have to hear the smallest beats, we call it, the smallest difference of pitch, and turn that hammer,” she said. Whenever he finishes tuning, she said he’ll sit down and start playing sing-along tunes from the 1920s to test the tuning.

Some of Mr. Blank’s best musical memories come from the 15 years he spent as an employee for Steinway. In that time, he tuned for about 90 percent of the music artists who came through Cincinnati’s Music Hall on tour, including celebrities such as Ruth Lyons, the Nippert family, Roger Williams and Peter Nero. He became the go-to man for any style: classical, rock or pop.
“They claim I’m a master tuner,” said Mr. Blank.

He started tuning and restoring pianos as a young man, working for friends to make extra money on the side. He spent four years in both the Navy, where he was drafted in the Korean War, and four years in seminary for the diocese, before discerning out. He attended college on the GI Bill, and eventually dated and married his wife in the 1960s.

Over those years of finding his vocation and his career, he never forgot the Cathedral Basilica, where he attended school 1942-1946 and was the first graduating class for the new building. Though he grew up attending Blessed Sacrament Parish, after his high school years he always somehow ended up back at the Cathedral.

While Mr. Blank and his wife were raising their six children, he worked as an organist and choir director for over 50 years at parishes such as St. John and St. Ann in Covington, Holy Cross in Latonia and Mary Queen of Heaven, Erlanger. It was during this time that he wrote his Mass parts. Since he retired 25 years ago, he has been playing organ at St. Charles Community nursing home free of charge for the Sisters of Notre Dame for the weekend Masses.

Mr. Blank has countless stories from his tuning years, “enough to write a book.” In 1970, he tuned for Van Cliburn when he played for the dedication of the Riverfront Stadium, with 30,000 people gathered. Mr. Blank has a sense of humor about it all, laughing as he recounted: “Clybourne looks down at me and he says, ‘I can’t wait to get … back to Texas,’ and I never did like that guy after that. I tuned for him two or three times 10 or 15 years later.”

He’s a man with gumption, unafraid to perform his job well, even when challenged. “I had a concert pianist from Spain who asked him to pull the two higher octaves up sharp, because it sounded better,” he said. “And I said yes ma’am, and I went ahead and tuned that piano for the next rehearsal and at the rehearsal she comes up and says, ‘That’s just the way I like it,’ and I didn’t tune it any different than I did the first time.”

“Then I had a concert pianist who called Steinway and complained,” he said. “So Henry Steinway, the president of Steinway and Sons, came to visit and check me out. He walked up and said, ‘Mr. Blank, this doesn’t sound right,’ and I was so nervous, but I said, ‘Mr. Steinway, it sounds fine to me.’ He nodded and walked away, and the next day I was called in after a sleepless night and thought I was going to be fired. Mr. Steinway said, ‘Keep up the good work.’ I was nervous but I was confident that I did a good job. He was just checking to see if I was confident.”

Mr. Blank’s family means everything to him, and he’s known his share of sorrow. Two of his children died at the age of 37: one of pancreatitis and one in a car accident with a drunk driver. His wife died a month later, out of grief.

Yet through it all, Mr. Blank keeps getting out of bed every morning and getting through each day. Now, Mr. Blank’s children live in Villa Hills, Ky., Frankfort, Ky., one in Tennessee and one in London, England. He has 13 grandchildren and six great grandchildren. His son Tom, who lives in Frankfort, has taken up the musical legacy and tunes pianos as well.

“The Lord has been good to me,” Mr. Blank said. “I have a wonderful family, a lot of grandkids.” He’s still tuning pianos, repairing and rebuilding them, and still playing golf.

Mrs. Wells said she’s seen a resiliency in Mr. Blank that is unparalleled. “With all the pain in his life, he’s always a bright spot,” she said.

In the last 10 years, Mr. Blank has been lectoring at the Cathedral for daily Mass. He also has been a server and an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. “Even after 78 years, every time I walk in that place, I’m just overwhelmed and inspired by it,” he said. “This building is incredible. I’ve been all over it.”

As he approaches his 90th birthday Nov. 4, Mr. Blank said he’s had a good life. “I love what I do, the priests have been good to me, and here I am,” he said. “I just try to do the best I can. My kids all love me and I’m just very fortunate.”