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Francis L. Church, cellist and retired editor, music critic and travel writer for The Richmond News Leader, dies at 87

He was music critic, travel writer for News Leader

Francis LeBaron Churc

Mr. Francis LeBaron Church, who died Sunday at his Midlothian residence, will be honored at a memorial service at 11 a.m. Friday at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road.

As a boy, Francis LeBaron Church took lessons until he became disinterested in the piano.

An aunt salvaged his musical interest by offering him a go at a cello that she had stored in her attic. He tried it out, and the cello and music became a love of his life — a love he shared widely as a music critic for The Richmond News Leader and as a performer in many venues.

“Music meant everything (to him)” — that and family, said Ann Archer, a violinist who played with him for 20 years in many amateur chamber groups. He played until he suffered a stroke in January that paralyzed him except for his right arm.

“Up unto the very end, what he wanted was music,” said Archer. His friends brought their instruments when they visited and kept him in good supply.

The 87-year-old Mr. Church, who died Sunday at his Midlothian residence, will be honored at a memorial service at 11 a.m. Friday at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road.

A Charlotte, N.C., native, he graduated from Woodberry Forest School and was in Navy boot camp when World War II ended, according to his wife of 54 years, Bettie Mobley Church. Interested in politics and history, he graduated with a government major from Harvard University in 1950.

Early on, Mr. Church served as sports editor and editorial writer for The Sanford (N.C.) Herald; state editor and editorial writer for the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal; and copy desk chief for the (Norfolk) Ledger-Star.

When he applied to work at The News Leader, he was editing the Sunday magazine section of Kentucky’s Louisville Courier-Journal and playing second chair cello in the Louisville Symphony Orchestra, which had recorded a lot of contemporary music.

“Francis was eager to play 20th and 21st century music. He was very adventurous about new music,” Archer said.

Mr. Church came to The News Leader in 1976 as classical music critic and to edit special sections, according to Jerald A. Finch, a former NL managing editor. He wrote a column for the Green Section, worked on the Spare Times section, was an editor on the copy desk and sometimes helped with newspaper makeup. He wrote about his travels before and after his retirement in December 1991 and was a freelance writer in retirement.

“Francis was highly respected throughout the greater Richmond area for his thoughtful, well-crafted music reviews,” said Henry S. Chenault, retired deputy managing editor of The News Leader, in an email.

“He strived to increase interest in and appreciation of Richmond’s vibrant and varied classical music offerings while still recognizing the occasional off notes among the many high notes.”

Clarke Bustard, a retired music critic for The Richmond Times-Dispatch, recalled that, “Francis had prodigious experience, both as a performer and as listener, and a real passion for music, which came through vividly in his writing.”

Colleagues recalled his encyclopedic knowledge of classical music, humor often delivered with a deadpan expression, and his heart-on-sleeve caring nature.

For years, Mr. Church was a board member and an organizer of the amateur section of the summertime Hampden-Sydney Chamber Music Festival.

He had played with the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Symphony, the Richmond Philharmonic, the University of Richmond Symphony Orchestra and the Norfolk, Charlottesville and Lynchburg symphonies.

Mr. Church was instrumental in founding the Second Sunday South of the James Concert Series, a monthly music event at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, where he was a longtime member.

Stephen Henley, minister of music at the church, said that Mr. Church, a longtime bass in the chancel choir, favored singing “music with a lot of alleluias in them.” He was a member of the handbell choir, provided a string quartet when needed and was instrumental in purchasing the church pipe organ in 1985.

“He always was looking for the best in music,” Henley said.

Survivors, besides his wife, include two daughters, Linda Jackson of Midlothian and Elizabeth “Lili” Boyd of Henrico; a son, Thomas LeBaron Church of Philadelphia; and eight grandchildren.

On the second Sunday of February 2015, a Francis Church Memorial Concert will be held at 4 p.m. as part of the Second Sunday South of the James Concert Series at Bon Air Presbyterian Church.

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