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York College Electrical Engineering alum restoring the world’s largest musical instrument

World's largest music instrument, a pipe organ

If you ask Dean Norbeck, it’s his wife, Susan, who got him into the whole situation.

Every Wednesday, the couple spends hours doing the tedious work of fixing, cleaning, restoring, and reassembling the tiny parts that make up the world’s largest musical instrument: a pipe organ at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

It’s no surprise really — it was music that first brought the couple together more than 50 years ago.

In 1966, Dean and Sue took the same music appreciation class at York College. A year later, they were married.

Restoring the music

Years of attending church services accompanied by the sound of pipe organs filled both Dean and Sue with a love for the instrument. So, when they learned about the noontime concerts of the pipe organ that was being restored at Boardwalk Hall, they became regular attendees.

It wasn’t long before Sue became a docent, leading tour groups through the space, and only a few years after that she convinced Dean to get involved, as well.

“She twisted my arm into going in to the organ shop,” Dean says.

The massive organ was unlike anything Dean, an electrical engineer, had worked on. It has a jaw-dropping 33,112 pipes in eight pipe chambers and weighs 3 million pounds. It makes the organ in the Notre Dame Cathedral, with its mere 8,000 pipes, seem tiny.

In 1944, a hurricane flooded and severely damaged the Boardwalk Hall organ, silencing the instrument. But in the early 2000s the Historic Organ Restoration Committee was formed, and slowly but surely the organ has been brought back to life.

As of last summer, restoration was about half-finished. The goal: complete restoration by 2023.

Dean and Sue are up to the task.

‘Just fix things’

Each of the organ’s 33,112 pipes has an electromagnet that is activated by a key on the organ console. That key opens the air valve that allows air into that pipe.

Each one of those 33,112 electromagnets need to be replaced.

It’s just one of the tedious tasks of replacing valves, screws, and connections required to restore the organ. For some, it would be an overwhelming task. But, Dean just takes it one step at a time.

“What I like to do is just fix things,” he says. “I’ve always been handy with electrical stuff, which is why I was an engineer, and I’ve always been good with tools.”

If it’s mechanical or electrical, Dean can fix it. He earned his associate’s degree in Electrical Engineering from York College, which was a junior college at the time, and then went on to get his bachelor’s and master’s in Electrical Engineering.

He genuinely enjoys the work, but the real reward comes after.

“The real thrill is when you spend all this time working on this and then you go in the audience and listen to a recital and you’re like, wow,” he says. “It really sounds as good as it does, because of all the work we’re putting into it.”

The transformation

Dean’s best friend in high school loved organs. So, his dad took the pair on a tour of different pipe organs. One was the organ Dean works on today. At the time, the instrument was so damaged it couldn’t be used at all.

Being a part of the organ’s transformation, sharing that excitement and passion for the instrument with his wife, it’s a thrill. And in four years when the project is complete and the organ is fully restored, he knows it will be a special moment for both of them.

“It really will be fabulous,” he says.

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