As a nine-year-old Colorado farm girl toying with her family’s new parlor organ in 1884, she was perhaps not unusual. But as a ten-year-old organist accompanying a stake choir, Edna Helena Coray was a prodigy. The only child of Howard Knowlton and Mary Lusk Coray, Edna was musically precocious from her earliest years. Wise teachers nourished Edna’s gift, and by age thirteen she was official organist of the San Luis Stake and was a sought-after music teacher.
As a teenager, Edna pursued both solitary and social delights. “Being an only child,” she wrote years later, “I had no playmates except at school, and recess time was filled with boisterous sport. A shy, solemn little boy from Tennessee gradually joined in our games, and I enjoyed them all the more, because of him!” 1 Edna and the “shy, solemn little boy,” James Wesley Dyer, were schoolmates in Sanford, Colorado, for three years. Their paths separated when the Corays moved to Salt Lake City in the spring of 1892, when Edna was sixteen and a half. But they were to meet again.
In Salt Lake City, Edna studied pipe organ under Joseph J. Daynes, Tabernacle organist. She progressed rapidly, often spending six or more hours a day at the organ. Before many months had passed she was invited by Evan Stephens, director of the Tabernacle Choir, to join the choir and thus be available as an on-call substitute for Daynes.
Edna’s commitment to music was wholehearted but sometimes less than confident. She wrote often to “dearest Papa,” who had returned to Colorado to farm for most of a year before joining his family in Salt Lake City. “If I only knew for sure, just how I advance in Dayne’s estimation,” she wrote. “He always, or usually says, ‘You’re doing very well; I’m quite pleased,’ etc., etc., but I suppose he sees I’m easily discouraged, and so says that to make me feel better.”
Early in 1893, lovely seventeen-year-old Edna confided to her father the course of her romantic infatuations. “There are so many ‘pretty’ boys in our ward,” she wrote, “that my heart is divided into about 15 or 20 parts, owing to my admiration for about that many. I can’t concentrate more than one part to any one person, so the pieces are deplorably scattered.”
A few months later, just following her eighteenth birthday, her “scattered” affections became shattered hopes. Within days, her clear, smooth complexion erupted with the raw, swollen sores of lupus vulgaris, a tubercular condition of the skin. To discourage infection and to reduce embarrassment, she swathed her face in a white gauze bandage mask. Removing it only for brief periods, she wore it for the next two decades.
Late in her life, Edna recalled those days: “During my late teens and early twenties, my life became virtually that of a shut-in; I never went to social gatherings of any kind, but just played for my Ward choir Sundays (or for funerals), and stayed home with my books and piano on week days. … One blessed friend … went with me every day to the Doctor’s, and was the only one besides him who knew what I suffered.”
She enrolled for a program in English at the University of Utah sometime after 1893, and completed a bachelor of arts degree in 1902 at age twenty-seven, the only woman in a graduating class of eight.
The electric face treatments, which always hurt, rarely helped. She was confronted with curious stares and embarrassing moments. “As I was on my way to school this morning,” she wrote in 1901, “the car-conductor and a student got to playing, and the latter pushed the former and as he fell over toward me, his elbow struck my sore face, hurting terribly, and making it bleed, much to the surprise of the car full of people. I was so mortified I could have died, but I just cried a little and went up to the University. When I saw that my bandage was all stained I turned it as best I could, and with Miss Emma Christensen’s kind help, I managed to cover the stains so I could get home. … I’m so soul-weary of being shut out alike from usefulness and enjoyment through my disfigurement!”
Edna penned a fervent resolution in February 1901: “If the Lord will grant me restoration from the affliction I am now suffering, I hereby solemnly covenant, and pledge myself to use whatever talents I may possess for the benefit of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to the full extent of my power. This covenant I make before God, Angels, and Men, and may the All Merciful One accept it. Amen.”
The promise was heartfelt, and Edna struggled to hope that one day her face would be healed. Months passed; the hopes and supplications continued, while her face remained an open wound. She took on a few piano students, immersed herself in studies at the university, and accompanied ward musicians.
Brighter moments came. A new organ for the Sixteenth Ward arrived; Edna was asked to play for a missionary farewell concert. Her first public organ appearance, performing before a full house, established her reputation as a first-rate musician. Subsequently, she was in frequent demand as both a soloist and accompanist. Hundreds of concert programs with her name appearing four, six, eight times or more, are among her collected memorabilia in the Brigham Young University archives.
Late in the spring of 1902, Edna took her first lessons at the great Tabernacle organ under Professor John J. McClellan, a brilliant organist. She sometimes played semiweekly Tabernacle organ recitals in his stead, and accompanied the choir in McClellan’s absence. She also played at general conference meetings. But the two did not always agree, and as the continual pressures wore upon her, she grew less and less enchanted with the responsibility.
Meanwhile, her father had arranged for Edna to study under Professor Thomas Radcliffe at the First Congregational Church. The professor, she noted, was “a perfect gentleman and a thorough master.” She studied with him for three years, progressing rapidly. Then Radcliffe died suddenly. “My beloved teacher and friend! … What can I now do to advance in my organ studies? He has left me alone, and I can see no further prospects!” Edna resolved to perpetuate Radcliffe’s philosophy: “If you regard your music as part of the worship of the Almighty, then the best you can offer is none too good!”
The struggle with lupus continued. X-ray treatments helped sporadically; Edna could sometimes remove the bandage for days. But always the disease—now aggravated by severe burns from the treatments—returned. Yet without fail, her musical services continued. Combined, her service on the organ bench—as Sixteenth Ward organist (thirty years), Lake Stake organist (fifteen years), and general organist for the Relief Society (thirty years), totaled seventy-five years. A gifted composer as well, Edna published at least one secular composition and several religious pieces.
Finally the skin condition subsided entirely; but her face remained severely scarred.
And what of that “shy, solemn little boy” of Colorado days? Edna Coray married him in the Salt Lake Temple on 27 August 1929, her fifty-fourth birthday. James had earlier married, fathered several children, and been widowed. He and Edna shared twenty-seven years together until James’s death in 1956.
Edna Helena Coray Dyer died 1 May 1960 and was buried in the Salt Lake Memorial Cemetery, with a small packet of James’s letters at her feet.
It is difficult to fully assess this remarkable woman’s spiritual gifts, her literary and artistic sensitivity, and her endearing, enduring humor. But we do know the depth of her love for others, expressed during a 1944 sacrament meeting at which she was honored: “Your presence here … is a token of respect that means more to me than a glittering medal from some worldly potentate. I can only say, I thank you with all my heart and wish that such measure of friendship as you have meted unto me, may be measured to you again, heaped up, pressed down, and running over!” 2