Jehovah Always Rewards His Loyal Ones
AS TOLD BY VERNON DUNCOMBE
I finished my late evening snack and as usual lit a cigarette. Then I asked my wife, Aileen: “How did the meeting go tonight?”
SHE paused and said: “A letter was read announcing new appointments, and your name was mentioned. You are to be the sound servant. The last sentence in the letter read: ‘If any of these newly appointed brothers are tobacco users, they are duty-bound to write the Society to say that they cannot accept the assignment.’”* I responded with a drawn-out and decisive, “Well-l-l! So that is what it said.”
I clenched my teeth and ground that cigarette into the ashtray beside me. “I do not know why I was chosen for this appointment. But I have never refused one yet, and I do not intend to start.” I resolved never to smoke again. That decision profoundly influenced my life as a Christian and as a musician. Let me fill you in on some events that led up to my resolve.
Early Family Life
Born in Toronto, Canada, on September 21, 1914, I was the eldest son of loving and hardworking parents, Vernon and Lila, who provided for a family of four boys and two girls. Next in age to me was Yorke, then Orlando, Douglas, Aileen, and Coral. When I was just nine, my mother put a violin in my hands and arranged for me to have music lessons at the Harris School of Music. Things were not easy, but Mother and Father found ways to pay streetcar fares and school tuition. Later I studied music theory and harmony at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and at the age of 12, I entered a citywide recital contest at Massey Hall, the prestigious music auditorium downtown. I was picked as winner and presented with a fine violin in an alligator-skin case.
In time, I also learned to play the piano and the bass violin. Often a group of us played for small parties on Friday and Saturday evenings and at fraternity dances. It was at one of these dances that I first met Aileen. During my last year in high school, I played with a number of orchestras across the city. After my graduation I was invited to join the Ferde Mowry Orchestra, and it proved to be a good, steady job until 1943.
Getting to Know Jehovah
My parents were first introduced to Bible truth just before the outbreak of World War I, when Father was working as a window dresser for a department store in downtown Toronto. In the lunchroom, he would listen to conversations between two other workers who were Bible Students (as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known), and then he would share what he heard with Mother when he came home in the evening. Some years later, in 1927, the Bible Students held a major convention in Toronto at the Coliseum in the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds. Our house, two blocks from the western entrance to the grounds, was used to accommodate 25 people from Ohio, U.S.A.
Thereafter, one of the Bible Students, Ada Bletsoe, began making frequent calls on Mother, leaving the latest literature with her. One day she said: “Mrs. Duncombe, I have been leaving literature with you for some time. Have you ever read any of it?” Although raising six children, Mother resolved to start reading the magazines from that point on, and she never stopped. However, I paid little attention to the literature. I was trying to graduate from school, and I was deeply involved in music.
In June 1935, Aileen and I were married in an Anglican church. Since I had left the United Church at the age of 13, I had no other religious affiliation; so I signed the marriage register as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, though I was not yet a Witness.
We looked forward to raising a family sometime in the future and desired to be good parents. Thus, we began to read the New Testament together. Despite our good intentions, however, other things interfered. We tried again a little later with the same results. Then for Christmas in 1935, we received a gift-wrapped book entitled The Harp of God. My wife said: “My, this is a strange Christmas gift that your mother sent us.” Nevertheless, after I went to work, she started reading it, and she liked what she read. For quite a while, I knew nothing about it. As for our family expectations, they were not realized. Our baby daughter, born February 1, 1937, did not live. How deeply grieved we were!
During this time, my family was actively participating in the preaching work, and I learned that Dad was the only Kingdom publisher in the family who had not yet placed a subscription for the magazine Consolation (now Awake!). This was the field ministry goal for the month. Even though I had not yet read any of the Society’s publications, I felt bad for him and said: “OK, Dad, you sign me up; and you will be the same as the others.” Summer came, and the orchestra moved out of the city to play at a resort. Consolation followed by mail. Autumn came, and the orchestra moved back to Toronto. The magazines kept coming to our new mailing address, and I had not even taken one of them out of its wrapper.
During one Christmas break, I looked at the stack of magazines and concluded that if I paid for these, I should read at least some of them to see what they had to say. The first one I opened startled me. It was an exposé of political intrigue and corruption of the time. I started talking to my fellow musicians about what I was reading. However, they challenged the truthfulness of what I was saying, and I had to keep on reading in order to defend myself. Unwittingly, I had begun to witness about Jehovah. And since that time, I have never ceased reading the wonderful Bible publications of “the faithful and discreet slave.”—Matthew 24:45.
Although work kept me busy during the week, I was soon attending Sunday meetings with Aileen. As we arrived for the meeting one Sunday in 1938, two elderly sisters greeted us, and one said: “Young Brother, have you taken your stand for Jehovah yet? You know, Armageddon is just around the corner!” I knew that Jehovah is the only true God, and I was convinced that this is his organization. I wanted to be part of it, so on October 15, 1938, I was baptized. Aileen was baptized about six months later. I am happy to say that all in my family became dedicated servants of Jehovah.
What delight I experienced by associating with God’s people! Soon, I felt at home among them. When I could not attend, I was always eager to know what happened at the meetings. The particular evening mentioned at the outset proved to be a turning point in my service to Jehovah.
A Time of Great Change for Us
Another significant adjustment took place for us on May 1, 1943. We had attended our first major convention, the September 1942 New World Theocratic Assembly in Cleveland, Ohio. There, right in the midst of a terrible world war, a war with no end in sight, we heard Brother Knorr, then president of the Watch Tower Society, courageously give the gripping public talk, “Peace—Can It Last?” We well remember how he showed, from Revelation chapter 17, that there would be a postwar peace period in which a great preaching work would be accomplished.
What affected us most was an earlier talk by Brother Knorr, “Jephthah and His Vow.” The call then went out for more pioneers! Aileen and I looked at each other and said in unison (along with a lot of others at the time): “That is us!” Immediately we started making plans to move on to a more important work.
A ban on the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses had existed in Canada since July 4, 1940. When we commenced pioneering on May 1, 1943, it was still illegal to witness about Jehovah and to offer the Society’s literature in the field service. Serving as Christians, we carried only our personal copies of the King James version of the Bible. Just days after we reached our first pioneer assignment in Parry Sound, Ontario, Stewart Mann, a seasoned pioneer, was sent by the branch office to work in the field with us. What a loving provision! Brother Mann had a pleasant manner and a ready smile. We learned from him and had a fine time. We were conducting a number of Bible studies when the Society reassigned us to the city of Hamilton. Not long afterward, in spite of my being overage for the military, I was drafted. My refusal to join the army resulted in my arrest on December 31, 1943. After court formalities were cared for, I was sentenced to an alternative service camp, where I remained until August 1945.
Upon my release Aileen and I immediately received a pioneer assignment that took us to Cornwall, Ontario. Shortly thereafter, we were off to Quebec with a special police court assignment from the Society’s Legal Department. This was during the Duplessis era in Quebec when persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses was especially intense. Many days each week, I found myself in four different courts helping our brothers. Those were exciting and faith-strengthening times.
Following the Cleveland convention in 1946, there came assignments to circuit and district work that took my wife and me from coast to coast. Things were happening fast. In 1948 we were invited to the 11th class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead. Brothers Albert Schroeder and Maxwell Friend were two of our instructors, and our class of 108 students included 40 anointed ones. With so many longtime servants of Jehovah present, it was a rich and rewarding experience indeed!
One day Brother Knorr visited us from Brooklyn. In his talk, he called for 25 volunteers to learn the Japanese language. All 108 volunteered! It remained the president’s job to choose who would be taught. I think Jehovah guided the selection because it worked out so well. Many of the 25 who were chosen and subsequently privileged to open the work in Japan are still in their assignment—elderly, yes, but still there. Some, such as Lloyd and Melba Barry, were moved to other assignments. Lloyd was a member of the Governing Body until his death last year. We rejoice with all of them in the reward that Jehovah has given.
Graduation day came, and we were assigned to Jamaica. However, because of outstanding court dates in Quebec, we were instructed to return to Canada.
Much More Music!
Though I left music behind for the pioneer service, it seemed that music did not leave me. The following year the Society’s president, Nathan Knorr, and his secretary, Milton Henschel, came to Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Brother Knorr’s public talk entitled “It Is Later Than You Think!” electrified everyone. For the first time, I was invited to care for the convention orchestra. We prepared waltz arrangements for some popular songs in the Kingdom Service Song Book (1944). The brothers seemed to like it. When the program closed on Saturday afternoon, we rehearsed our planned program for Sunday. I caught a glimpse of Brother Henschel coming across the arena floor in our direction, and I stopped the orchestra so that I could go and meet him. He asked, “How many musicians do you have in your orchestra here?” “When all are present, about 35,” I answered. “Well, you will have twice that many in New York next summer,” he replied.
Before that summer arrived, though, I was invited to Brooklyn. Because of circumstances, Aileen was initially unable to come with me. The new 124 Columbia Heights building was not yet complete, so I was assigned a bed in the original building, in a small room with two anointed brothers—an elderly Brother Payne and Karl Klein, whom I was now meeting for the first time. Was it crowded? Yes. Nonetheless, we got along very well together. The older brothers were long-suffering and patient. I just tried to keep out of the way! It was a good lesson in what God’s spirit can accomplish. My meeting and working with Brother Klein brought me such blessings! He was always kind and helpful. We worked well together and have remained close friends for over 50 years.
It was my privilege to assist with the music at the Yankee Stadium conventions in 1950, 1953, 1955, and 1958, as well as to share orchestral responsibilities with Al Kavelin at the 1963 convention held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. During the 1953 convention at Yankee Stadium, a musical program was presented on Sunday before the public talk. Erich Frost introduced Edith Shemionik (later Weigand), soprano, who sang his composition “Forward, You Witnesses!” to our orchestral accompaniment. Then we thrilled as we heard, for the first time, the rich and beautiful voices of our African brothers and sisters. Missionary Harry Arnott had brought a fine tape recording from Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) for our listening pleasure. The sound filled the entire stadium.
Recording the 1966 Songbook
Do you recall the pink vinyl songbook, “Singing and Accompanying Yourselves With Music in Your Hearts”? When this was approaching its final preparation, Brother Knorr said: “We are going to make some recordings. I want you to put together a small orchestra, just a few violins and a couple of flutes. I do not want anyone ‘blowing his horn’!” The Kingdom Hall at Bethel would be our studio, but there was some worry about using it. What would happen with sound bouncing off undraped walls, tile floors, and metal folding chairs? Who could help us solve disagreeable sound problems? Someone suggested: “Tommy Mitchell! He works at the ABC Network Studios.” We got in touch with Brother Mitchell, who was glad to help out.
The first Saturday morning for recording came along, and as the musicians were being introduced, one of the brothers had a trombone case. I remembered Brother Knorr’s warning: “I do not want anyone ‘blowing his horn’!” Now, what could I do? I watched as the brother took his trombone from the case, fixed its slide in place, and started to warm up. The brother was Tom Mitchell, and his first few notes were beautiful. He made the trombone sound like a violin! I thought, ‘this brother has to stay!’ Brother Knorr never objected.
In that orchestra, we had a group of fine musicians who were also loving brothers and sisters. There were no prima donnas! Recording was a strenuous job, but there were no complaints. When the work was finished, there were tears; and a strong camaraderie remains among those who took part. Every one of us enjoyed the privilege, and thanks to Jehovah, we got the job done.
Additional Rewarding Privileges
After so many years, I continue to enjoy the full-time ministry. There have been 28 years of assignments in circuit and district work—every one of them enjoyable. This was followed by five years of managing the Norval Assembly Hall in Ontario. With a circuit assembly every weekend as well as foreign-language district conventions, Aileen and I were busy. In 1979/80, architects and engineers used facilities at the Assembly Hall as they planned the Society’s future branch in Halton Hills. Following our work at the Assembly Hall, another assignment led to a further share in the field of music in Brooklyn, from 1982 to 1984.
My dear wife died on June 17, 1994, just seven days after our 59th wedding anniversary. We had completed 51 years of devoted pioneer service together.
As I reflect on my many experiences in life, I remember how the Bible has been a very precious guide. Sometimes, I use Aileen’s personal Bible and derive great pleasure from noting what touched her heart—whole verses, specific phrases, and individual words that she marked. As was the case with Aileen, I too have scriptures that carry special meaning for me. One passage is the 137th Psalm, which expresses this beautiful prayer to Jehovah: “May I never be able to play the harp again if I forget you, Jerusalem! May I never be able to sing again if I do not remember you, if I do not think of you as my greatest joy!” (Psalm 137:5, 6, Today’s English Version) Although I love music, my greatest joy comes from loyally serving Jehovah, who has rewarded me with a full and satisfying life.
The Watchtower of June 1, 1973, explained why from that time forward, an individual would need to quit smoking before he could be baptized and become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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With Aileen in 1947
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At an early recording session