On April 26, minutes before the spring choral concert at Arborlawn United Methodist Church, the choir director sat alone off stage, pale and weary from the cancer that would take his life exactly two weeks later.
“Tell me how you’re doing,” the Rev. Ben Disney, Arborlawn’s senior minister, asked Tom Stoker.
“I don’t know if I can do this, but I’m going to try,” Mr. Stoker replied.
“Whatever happens, we’re here for you,” Disney said.
The sanctuary was packed. More than 1,300 people had assembled in part because, under Mr. Stoker’s leadership, the Arborlawn concerts had become cultural staples in the city. But word had also spread of Mr. Stoker’s illness. It was assumed that April 26 would be his valedictory appearance, a final chapter in a special story.
Mr. Stoker and his family moved to Fort Worth from Alabama 1982 so he could study music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mr. Stoker went on to serve as music minister at two churches, Broadway Baptist and Arborlawn.
“He was an excellent musician, really an extraordinary choral man,” said John Giordano, longtime conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony and retired jury chairman of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. “Every time I heard one of his choirs, it was superb.”
Mr. Stoker was also a confidant of legendary pianist Van Cliburn.
“Van and his mother adored Tom from the time they moved to Fort Worth,” said Cliburn’s companion, Tommy Smith. “There was no one better than Tom to put together an orchestra and singers.”
Mr. Stoker’s ensembles toured the world, singing in Latin, French and Hebrew. He had seemingly limitless energy and passion, a demanding and ambitious taskmaster. At the same time, friends and family say, he was always kind, loving and present.
“He just loved people,” his wife, Pam Stoker, said. “I called him an AA-type person. He was always on the move. He walked fast and he was always planning the next thing. But in that moving forward, he always took the time to stop and look people in the eye, and if he detected this person might not be having the best day he would stop and say, ‘Is everything OK?’ And people would pour their heart out to him.”
He had mentored and inspired so many people that way, and on that April Sunday night, one part of the story was destined to end. With assistance, Mr. Stoker hobbled into the sanctuary where his Chancel Choir, an orchestra and a stool were waiting.
After a thunderous ovation, the sanctuary fell silent.
A life in music
Thomas Melvin Stoker was born July 14, 1953, in Abilene. Health issues precluded participation in sports, so from a young age he channeled his energy into music.
“His love for music came out of his home church experience,” Pam Stoker said. “He had wanted to live a Godly life. It was [the music minister] at his church that opened his eyes to the fact that church music was an area in which he could really serve.”
Mr. Stoker studied music at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., where he met his wife. He began his career as a music minister in Birmingham and Columbiana, Ala. And in 1982, the family moved to Fort Worth so that Mr. Stoker could attend the seminary.
“We came out here with no home, no job and a hundred dollars to our name, knowing that this was the right thing to do,” Pam Stoker said.
Within a year, Mr. Stoker was called by Broadway to be minister of music. He directed the adult and high school choirs, and supervised the children’s choirs. And he continued the church’s commitment to a more traditional style of Baptist worship with music typically emphasizing the pipe organ. Often classical musicians contribute to the service.
Later in the 1980s, during an evening service on Mother’s Day, legendary pianist Van Cliburn and his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, slipped into the back pews.
“Van and his mother had just moved to Fort Worth from New York,” Pam Stoker said. “They wanted to find community and just live a more simple life. After the service, Van came down and introduced himself to Tom. From that humble beginning started a friendship between Tom and Van that lasted until Van’s death.”
“Van was nervous about how his music would be received, and he asked Tom come and listen to him practice,” Pam Stoker remembered. “Tom said to me, ‘What does he expect me to tell him?’ ”
In the early 1990s, Mr. Stoker was instrumental in the church’s capital campaign that raised about $4 million to renovate the sanctuary and replace a 40-year-old organ with a $2.5 million, 10,615-pipe organ that was named for Rildia Bee Cliburn.
She died in 1994 before the organ was installed. Mr. Stoker helped design the musical program for her funeral and did the same for Cliburn’s funeral in 2013. Mr. Stoker collaborated with Broadway’s organist, Al Travis; Miguel Harth-Bedoya, music director of the Fort Worth Symphony; and Tommy Smith. The service, an affecting musical tribute, featured Cliburn’s favorite music, much of it Russian.
“He was exhausted afterward, but very pleased,” Pam Stoker said.
After leaving Broadway in 1998, he formed Stoker Resources Group, a public relations firm specializing in arts and faith organizations, business and educational institutions. In 2005, he became minister of worship arts at Arborlawn, directing the church’s 130-member choir and helping design a new sanctuary with an eye toward choral and orchestra music.
Amy Adkins, president of the Fort Worth Symphony, said Arborlawn became a “home away from home” for the symphony, which performs there twice a year. Also, Adkins is a former member of Stoker’s Arborlawn choir and a friend.
“We are heartbroken to lose him as a colleague and a musical collaborator,” Adkins said.
“He was just always smiling and had such a positive attitude, and he really worked with his church choir,” Adkins said. “And for me he really became sort of a religious counselor. If I had a problem I needed to talk through, Tom was the person I would call on. He had that sort of pastoral quality to him. He was there to lead people, to guide them in their lives.”
‘Singing for Tom’
Adkins and many other past members of the choir returned for the April 26 concert. By then it was widely known that the rare retinal cancer first diagnosed in 2009 had spread.
That Sunday night was a typical Stoker program, beautiful but ambitious and grueling for the performers and conductor alike. The 90-minute program featured familiar hymns, and works by Haydn, Mendelssohn, Bach and Brahms.
Mr. Stoker never left his stool as he conducted.
The first piece was a hymn written by composer Sterling Procter, another friend of Mr. Stoker.
“I know he had a challenge keeping up the tempos because just moving his arms was tiring, yet he made it through, and it was brilliant,” Procter said.
The program closed with the hymn Fairest Lord Jesus.
“It was all kinds of emotions mixed together,” Adkins said. “We were all singing for Tom. It was sad, but we were there to honor him with music, which was what his entire life was about, church music. In the last piece, the choir was sobbing through the whole thing.”
Disney said that Mr. Stoker was completely spent by the end. He needed help leaving the stage after a long standing ovation.
He died at home on May 10.
“For whatever reason, he found whatever he had to at that moment, adrenalin or inspiration,” Disney said. “He had enough to finish, but he had nothing left after that. He poured every last ounce of himself out there. He went into the hospital the next day and he never came back to us” at church.
“But it was also something that fed his soul. He could look back over a life’s work, see the crowd of people from the last 45 years who had come to say ‘Thank you.’ I have looked at that night and have said to folks, ‘He will leave this world and his song will be absolutely poured out.’”
In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Chas Stoker; a daughter, Stephanie Hicks; and two grandchildren, all of Fort Worth; and a sister, Susan Stanton of Temple.
Memorial service: 5 p.m. Sunday at Arborlawn United Methodist Church, 5001 Briarhaven Road, Fort Worth. Former members of Tom Stoker’s youth choirs are invited to join the choir.