WAUTOMA — Phyllis Dollar was born to play music. Her parents hit the right note when they gave her the middle name of Cecilia. St. Cecilia is also her favorite saint, the patroness of musicians.
Growing up in White Lake, Wis., the eighth of nine children, Dollar’s family lived across the street from St. James Church. “My dad had a very nice voice and he got me singing in the church choir when I was 6 years old,” she said.
Her family was dedicated to the church – her father was a janitor, her brothers were altar boys and her mother washed and ironed all the altar linens and raised all the fresh flowers. “I was always fascinated with the organ because it was a pump organ,” said Dollar. “I could go over there any time, so I’d go over and goof around on it.”
Dollar’s father played violin and she wanted to take piano lessons so she could accompany him on piano. When she was 13, Dollar got a job cleaning a boarding house so she could take lessons. “I’d go right from cleaning this lady’s whole house to taking my half-hour piano lesson and giving the teacher my 50 cents that I earned,” she said.
After a year, she stopped taking lessons, but continued to clean house. What happened to her 50 cents? “I spent it anyhow,” she said with a laugh. “Being one of nine kids, if you had 50 cents, you had it made — all the candy you wanted at the store.”
She took music all through school. “I played three different instruments — a mellophone (a version of the French horn), then the French horn and the trumpet in the band,” said Dollar. “I was in everything I could get my hands on — all the plays and everything else because I was interested — music was my thing.”
After getting married, Dollar didn’t play the piano for 35 years. Instead, she raised a family of five and worked as a legal secretary for the district attorney, the public administrator and the city attorney in Waukesha. Her family moved to Wild Rose in 1979 and joined St. Joseph Parish in Wautoma. “I missed (playing piano), but had plenty to keep me busy,” she said.
Her husband, Bob, died in 1982. Three years later, she noticed that St. Joseph Parish had a nice organ but the music ministry was lacking. Dollar bought a used organ exactly like the one in church and gave herself three months to practice. She mastered the skill quickly, even though she’d never used foot pedals before, and has been playing ever since.
“I thought I was going to have a heart attack every time I got up to play for Mass. My heart was just beating like crazy because I was scared to death,” said Dollar. “It took me about six months to get comfortable with it.”
One of her favorite pieces to play includes “How Great Thou Art,” but she enjoys them all. “The kids say, ‘You don’t play any of your other music anymore. All you play is church music.’ They call me the ‘church lady,’” she said with a smile.
Dollar barely began playing organ for Mass when she was asked to be a member of the parish pastoral council, which was in the early stages of development in those days. She was also on the finance council, ran the church bingo and was three-time president of the Parish Council of Catholic Women.
In this role, she helped establish the boutique that’s held every October and a luncheon which raises funds to support the rectory and special parish projects — all while working for Shelmet Precision Casting of Wild Rose. She worked there until retiring Sept. 1 of this year.
In the 1990s, as choir director, she organized singers for Mass. “Fr. Philip (Dinh-Van-Thiep) was here and I was playing for the English Mass and he asked me if I would play for the Spanish Mass,” said Dollar. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t speak Spanish,’ and he said ‘That’s all right.’ Then I got a choir going for the Spanish Mass. I still don’t speak Spanish; I just sing it.”
A 40-year member of the parish, she has been playing for Spanish Mass and all the funerals, doing readings/lecturing, distributing Communion and volunteering wherever necessary. “I’m not cut out for retirement,” she said.
“I thank God every day for anything I can do. I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have my music — it’s a part of me.”