Burt Witham was born in 1900 in Westbrook, Maine, the son of a local doctor. During high school he worked as the night operator of the local telephone exchange and slept on a cot in between answering calls. Rudy Valle, a classmate of Burt’s, would often visit at the telephone office and the two friends would read French novels to pass the time.
After high school, Burt went to piano technician’s school in Boston, and following a few short business adventures, he worked for Cressy and Allen in Portland, servicing pianos.
Burt’s first connection with the organ was during his high school years, when he helped raise money to buy a blower for the tracker organ in his family’s church, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Westbrook. His interest in the organ led him to the Hook & Hastings Company in Boston, where he apprenticed for some time. For many years Burt represented the Austin Organ Company, and he installed and/or rebuilt many of their instruments in Maine and New Hampshire. In fact, his last installation was for a Congregational church in his hometown of Westbrook, when he was in his 80s. He was well-known and well-loved in the many churches he served in Maine and New Hampshire. A 1981 article, written by Portland’s Evening Express staff writer Bob Niss, states that:
“When Witham was hospitalized several years ago, the nurses were puzzled by the steady stream of ministers from most all faiths who came to wish him well. He took delight in their bewilderment, waiting almost until he checked out to tell them how he came to know so many men from so many cuts of cloth.”
His profession was all-absorbing and kept him constantly busy. For example, though he had his heart set on becoming Master of his Masonic Lodge in Westbrook, Burt was not able to accomplish “going up through the chairs” until he was well into his 70s, because of the demands of his clients throughout New England.
Witham took pride in being at every single concert when the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ was played, and was always ready to jump in and do some necessary repair in order to keep the music flowing. He attended the giant organ for 40-odd years, ending in the spring of 1981, when Douglas Rafter resigned. Witham, then 81 years old, moved to Florida, where he passed away in 1995.
Witham talked about his work on the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ as mainly a “labor of love.” He was described by one admirer as the unsung hero behind the scenes as the instrument aged, parts wore out, and money was scarce for serious renovation.
— Excerpt from Behind the Pipes: The Story of the Kotzschmar Organ
© 2005 by Janice Parkinson Tucker