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Profiles of Mennonite Faith

No. 75, Spring 2024

Larry Warkentin: Gifted Musician and Thoughtful Believer

Dr. Larry Warkentin, longtime music professor at Fresno Pacific University (FPU) in Fresno, California, was deeply respected both on campus and beyond. His legacy spanned 50 years as a professor, mentor, composer, pianist, choral conductor, author, and churchman. Paula, Larry’s wife, described him as always busy. Even in the week before his death on April 5, 2021, he garnered enough strength to prepare and play prelude music for a Palm Sunday worship service.

Larry Warkentin (1940-2021)

Photo credit: Fresno Pacific University

Larry Warkentin (1940–2021)

Larry was born on August 14, 1940, to Pete and Marie Warkentin, fruit farmers near Reedley, California. He began his education in Clay School, an elementary school near Reedley, and began piano lessons at the age of seven. He graduated from Reedley’s Immanuel High School in 1958, and, in the fall, enrolled as a Freshman at Tabor College (Hillsboro, Kansas) with an interest in English literature. He was recruited as the piano accompanist for the Tabor College Choir, and both Professors Herbert Richert and Paul Wohlgemuth greatly influenced the cultivation of his musical interests and gifts.

Larry met Paula Berg during their years at Tabor. Drawn to each other through mutual interests in music. Paula, a violinist, and Larry, a pianist, frequently played duets for choir concerts and public events. They were married following graduation from Tabor on August 17, 1962. With a major in music, Larry began teaching part-time at FPU while also completing a master’s degree in music at Fresno State University. In 1966, he completed a Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Southern California and began his long musical career at FPU. Larry and Paula raised two children and have two grandchildren.

Larry’s storied career as a prolific composer includes major works such as the following: The Word, an oratorio, presented by the Fresno Oratorio Society in 1973; Koinonia, a symphony that premiered at the 1978 Mennonite World Conference in Wichita, Kansas; Crazy Quilt, a folk opera staged at FPU in 1987; his Piano Concerto performed by the Tulare California Symphony in 2002 with Larry as the pianist; Sun, Moon & Stars, a cantata for choir, solo, and orchestra, commissioned for Tabor’s 2009 Centennial celebration; and Variations for Orchestra based on the German hymn, Nun ist sie erschienen. It was commissioned in 2013 by Conrad Grebel University College of Waterloo, Ontario. He also composed scores of compositions, e.g., string quartets, piano concertos, choral anthems, hymn arrangements for piano, congregational hymns, and Christmas carols.

Larry received over a dozen awards from the prestigious American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and the Music Teachers Association of California. He was also honored by FPU with the “President’s Distinguished Faculty Award,” and, in 2022, was an inductee in the “The Arts Hall of Fame” of Tabor College. Upon retirement from FPU in 2002, FPU bestowed upon him the title Faculty Emeritus.

Larry’s faith was central to who he was as a person, whether composing a symphony or hymn, planning special music for a worship service, or enjoying a church camp out. In 1976, he wrote a thoughtful response about the music and worship debates called “Confessions of a Church Musician,” published in Direction. He suggested, “The question should not be shall we have hymns, or rock, or country western music in the church?” Rather, we should ask, “What kind of hymns, or rock, or country western music should we have?” He believed that music in the church and in our personal lives should thoughtfully stand the test of Philippians 4:8, “whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good report, excellent, and worthy of praise.”

Larry described himself as enjoying both music and literature. His articles on music and worship have appeared in the Journal of the American Choral Directors Association, the Latin American Music Review, Direction, and Christian Leader. For seven years, he was the classical music reviewer for Fresno’s newspaper, The Fresno Bee. He wrote three books of poetry, and he published Bloodline: Of Peasants, Pilgrims, and Poets (2011), a 600-page historical novel based on his family history. Larry’s Faith of Doubting Thomas (2016) is an account of his journey of faith with its thoughts, questions, and doubts.

He did not consider himself to be a theologian, but rather a “thoughtful believer” who sought a deeper understanding of his faith in Jesus Christ. He held doubt and faith in tension and believed that doubt was a necessary ingredient to his faith. Even so, he wrote, “Like the Nicene Church fathers, I begin at the beginning. . . . Belief in one God, creator of heaven and earth. Creator of me and all humanity. . . . I believe in One (God), timeless, eternal, omnipresent, originator. . . . I exist in God by God’s provision, and . . . I will continue in God’s eternity when my participation in this temporal experience is interrupted.” He emphatically concludes, “This belief surrounds, permeates, saturates, motivates, and explains all that I am.”

During a church-inspired exercise for Lent, he penned “Twenty-one Prayers,” which he inserted as the final chapter of Faith of Doubting Thomas. After 58 years of marriage, Paula knew Larry well. She described his Lenten prayers as “a glimpse into his heart.” After expressions of unbounded praise, thanksgiving, petition, and also humble contrition, Larry concluded prayer twenty-one with, “God, I love you with my whole heart and, though it is imperfect, I know you can make my love perfect in your sight.” That was my friend, Larry Warkentin, a gifted musician who was first and foremost a sincere, faithful, and devoted follower of Jesus Christ.