George Robert “Bob” Downer, 86, was born Jan. 7, 1931, in a blizzard in Buffalo, N.Y., and died April 5, 2017.
He attended elementary, junior and senior high schools in Washington, D.C., In the school system and in the church, he discovered the joy of singing. Downer was a tenor soloist at Walter Reed Hospital Chapel and First Baptist Church in downtown D.C. President Harry Truman attended that church and was present when Downer sang the tenor solos in Handel’s “Messiah.”
As a child, Downer spent many summers on a relative’s farm near Batavia, N.Y. As a teenager, he worked at a camp on Lake Dunmore, near Brandon, Vt. During the summer of 1949, Downer attended a three-week vocal camp at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. Unknowingly, Downer also then met his future wife, Mildred Craven Newman. They met again in September of 1950, when each enrolled as freshmen at Westminster.
After their freshman year, he and Mildred were both selected as members of the 40-voice touring Westminster Choir. In the following three years, they traveled on three extensive tours in 23 states. They also sang 25 concerts with the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall, under the direction of Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein, Dimitri Metropolis and Guido Cantelli.
Downer graduated from Westminster in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in music. He and Mildred were married Aug. 7, 1954. He earned his master’s degree in music in 1955.
Downer served as a minister of music at Second Presbyterian Church of Germantown in Philadelphia, Pa., from 1951 to 1954 and at Fanwood (N.J.) Presbyterian Church in Fanwood from 1954 to 1955. He also served in the U.S. Army from 1955 to 1957, including one year in Frankfurt, Germany, where he was assigned to the chaplain’s headquarters. Mildred and their daughter, Terrie, joined him there.
Upon returning to the states, he was called as minister of music at First Baptist Church, Wilmington, N.C., from 1957 to 1959, then becoming 35-year minister of music and worship at First Baptist Church, Austin, Texas. In 1961, his wife was made assistant minister of music. Downer planned all of the worship services, and together they directed eight singing choirs and three handbell choirs. Hundreds of students sang in the graded choir program over the years, many of whom chose careers in music. The couple retired in August of 1994. Following his retirement, Downer orchestrated an addition and remodeling of his beloved family home in Bethany Beach, Del.
The Downers received 1987 “The Alumni Merit Award” from Westminster Choir College, Princeton, N.J., and were later named Ministers of Music Emeritus at First Baptist Church, Austin, Texas.
Downer was preceded in death by his father, George Emmon Downer; mother, Dorothy Gravatte Downer; sister, Patricia Downer Thomas; and son-in-law, Stephen Loy Combs. He is survived by his wife of 63 years,
Mildred Newman Downer of Virginia; daughter, Teresa Downer Combs of Virginia; son, Mark Elliott Downer and wife, Renee Joseph Downer, of Austin; his sister, Eloise Downer Pantermuehl of Wimberly, Texas, and her husband, Buddy Pantermuehl; five grandchildren who lovingly called him “Deedaddy,” Preston Gill of Michigan and his wife, Danielle Gill, Lauren Combs, Madison Combs and fiancée Kayla See, all of Virginia, and Ryan and Brandon Downer of Texas; two great-grandchildren; two step-great-grandchildren of Michigan; several nieces and nephews; and a close family friend who became like another daughter, Louise Kemp Avant.
A visitation was scheduled for April 27, 2017, at Cook Walden Funeral Home, Austin, Texas. A private burial will take place April 28, 2017. A memorial service and musical celebration of life will be held April 28, 2017, at First Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Music Ministry of First Baptist Church; 901 Trinity St.; Austin, TX 78701.