Vernon Chappel's lifetime of service and giving has come to an end, but the effect he has had on people apparently never will. Chappel, who just celebrated his 56th birthday, died in the early hours of Jan. 27 while in Kern County to perform at a state convention.

"That's why we thought he was here, but God had a bigger plan," said Chappel's sister, Loretta.

Loretta Chappel said her brother shared a big family breakfast and returned for dinner on the day before he died.

"He just went to sleep about 11 that evening and went peacefully," Loretta said. "We are so grateful that God did that for us; that we got to see him smiling and laughing one last time."

Chappel said her brother had a heart condition, which contributed to his death.

Although Vernon Chappel most recently ministered to the people of Durham, N.C., as music minister of The River Church, he was well-known in Kern County for his spirited role as a cheerleader for Bakersfield College and Cal State Bakersfield in the late 1970s. The musician and songwriter devoted more than 35 years to music ministry.

Chappel's call to music ministry came at an early age. Born to Virgil and Doris Chappel, Vernon was one of nine children, and was playing for his family of singers and the Truelight Missionary Baptist Church in Wasco almost before he was in school.

"Vernon always had a calling in his life," said Judy Woodrow, another sister. "From the time he was 4 years old."

"He got a piano when he was about 6 or 7; he just started playing," Woodrow said.

"(His family) said they used to put pillows under him at the organ and his feet still wouldn't reach the pedals," said M.E. Cockrell, current pastor of the Wasco church.

By the time Vernon was in his teens, he had become the director of the choir at the church, and he and his sisters had become known as the Chappel Singers, performing throughout California and receiving numerous awards for their work.

After graduating from Wasco High School, Chappel attended Bakersfield College, where he got heavily involved in student life. He became one of the most beloved figures on campus as a yell leader for the BC cheerleading squad, revving up the thousands of football fans who used to pack Memorial Stadium in the late 1970s.

"I remember sitting in the stands at a game, and people next to me would say, 'Get him off the field, we're trying to watch the game,'" Loretta Chappel said. "And then in a short while, those people wound up and cheering along with Vernon."

"It was just that infectious way he had," Chappel said.

"No one could get a crowd cheering like Vernon," wrote Becki Whitson, chairwoman of the behavioral sciences department at BC, BC cheer coach and a former BC cheerleader.

"He was the epitome of spirit and leadership. No one could sing praise to God and lead worship like Vernon either," Whitson wrote.

Jim McConnell, another former BC cheerleader and currently program coordinator for the Kern High School District, echoed Whitson:

"Folks gathered around him at Town Casino piano bar or the thousands that he cheered on at local BC and CSUB athletic events; he was a 'man for all seasons.' He will be sorely missed by all who knew him."

Chappel made Bakersfield his home and worked for Kern County Economic Opportunity Corporation while serving as music minister at Abundant Life Church, among others.

"He felt as if God was going to do great things for him in this way," said Loretta Chappel.

"(Music is) central to the praise," said Cockrell about the importance of the music minister position. "It's like the cantor (in Jewish tradition).

"First of all, he should be inspired to do it. He should be gifted to do it."

Some 15 years ago, Chappel became music minister at The River Church in Durham, N.C. But his career was much broader than that. Through his own ministries as well as those directed by the church, Chappel became recognized as a songwriter, a teacher and a mentor. He traveled and performed and taught at workshops, conferences and other events all over the United States and also performed in Bermuda, South Africa and countries in Europe. Some of his songs have been recorded by major gospel artists, and his song "One for All" was chosen as the theme for the 2009 Presidential Inaugural National Justice Sunday service.

"We didn't have any idea he would have this global career," Loretta said. "At the same time, we're not surprised because he was such a beautiful, beautiful person."

Anthony Cisneros, Chappel's former road manager and best friend, said the music minister's concerts and conferences were unforgettable.

"We traveled throughout the U.S. and South Africa together. He was an amazing ambassador who loved Jesus and always enjoyed sharing God's love through music wherever he went. ...

"Vernon expressed a passion for praise and worship like none other. He was an avid fisherman, a talented cook, a gifted singer, but most of all, he was my friend."

Services for Chappel in Kern County included a musical in his honor on Friday and a "homegoing" service today at 11 a.m., both at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church on East Brundage Lane. Interment will follow at Wasco Cemetery and a reception will be held at Wasco High School. Homegoing services in the Raleigh-Durham metro area are scheduled for next weekend.

"He didn't meet a stranger," said Woodrow. "Anybody he met, their life kind of changed -- they just loved him."