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Pianist, 100, hits right note at nursing home

By Evin Demirel

This article was published January 30, 2010 at 1:13 a.m.

— About a month ago, a realization crashed into Frances Meador.

In pouring rain, she was driving her Oldsmobile Cutlass on the U.S. 79/167 bypass near a Fordyce nursing home where she plays piano for Sunday services. Trucks rumbled by as she headed to St. John’s Place Rehabilitation and Residential Care Facility.

“I’m crazy,” Meador recalled saying to herself. “A 100-year-old woman driving in this bad weather.”

The lifelong Dallas County resident’s 100th birthday was actually Thursday [Jan. 28]. Her celebration week plays out like so many before it - playing piano at Fordyce’s First Baptist Church and ministering to patients who pack St. John’s dining room, Heavenly Highways hymnals in hand, as they sing such favorites as “I’ll Fly Away.”

The patients look forward to the six visits a month from Meador and her team, said Amanda Cook, administrator of the St. John’s facility, which last week held 103 patients ranging from the 50s to late 90s.

“It’s inspiring for them to see someone their age who’s still able to get around as well as she does, because that can motivate them,” Cook said.

Stacy Reed, First Baptist Church’s pastor and sometimes part of Meador’s team, agreed.

FAMILIAR TUNES

Twice a month, Reed helps lead a Tuesday morning gospel devotional at St. John’s with Meador and other church volunteers, including Meador’s eldest son, John Benton Meador. “We play a lot of 1940s, 1930s hymns,” he said, “much older than the hymns we play here at church. Songs many of those folks grew up singing when they were children.”

Another son, Joe Bill Meador, added: “I tell people she goes out there and plays for the old folks and she’s probably the oldest one out there.”

Frances Meador said the experience of playing for people with dementia who are decades younger than she can get “pretty emotional” and sad but that “it’s rewarding to be able to share.” At least seven to 10 of First Baptist’s members are patients at the nursing home, Reed, 38, added.

And when the church’s full-time pianist can’t play, those patients hear a double dose of Meador’s Sunday morning music. Meador volunteers as First Baptist’s substitute pianist after decades as its full-time pianist and organist.

“It’s very satisfying,” she said. “I like to feel like that’s some contribution to the church. I love to play.”

Since childhood, Meador has been well-known to First Baptist members.

Her uncle, Virgil Conner, earned his history doctorate at 92 by writing a thesis on Dallas County which included the history of the church, said Joe Bill Meador, a former Dallas County judge.

FAMILY CONNECTIONS

Frances Meador’s mother, Effie Benton, was the church’s pianist and organist. Her father, Hugh Benton, was a prominent businessman who also served as a church deacon. The Benton name is still stamped on numerous Fordyce buildings, including one housing Klappenbach Bakery - where Meador enjoys Reuben sandwiches(her favorite) and caramel pie - and a funeral home in which Meador occasionally plays piano for services.

Her father’s wealth helped Meador be one of the few teenage girls with her own car in 1920s Fordyce. Her parents also permitted her to pick up dates, with one condition: All three of her younger sisters had to accompany her, Meador recalled, chuckling.

One such date included a trip to her boyfriend’s house in the mid-1920s to listen to one of the town’s first radios, she added. Despite the growth of such technologies, Meador said life for her and others still revolved around church.

FOCUS ON CHURCH

The church was a focal point for many in the community before television and the Internet, and people would come day after day.

“We used to hold revivals for 10 days. Now, they do well to have one for three [days],”she said.

In 1932, Meador graduated from Ouachita Baptist College (now University) in Arkadelphia with English and music degrees. There, she met John Meador, a future U.S. Army colonel whom she married in 1933. They had three sons. Meador died in 1981.

Frances Meador, who recalled becoming First Baptist’s pianist in the 1950s, also taught piano in the home she has lived in since 1952. The church’s current organist, Becky Rogers, was one of her students, she said.

Meador now fills her weekdays with a routine involving cryptoquote word puzzles, devotionals from a guide called “Open Windows,” and lunch visits to friends at the retirement center, which shecaps with two-hour sessions of the card game Shanghai.

She still regales visitors with her music skills, as she did on a recent weekday morning when she sat down at the tan Baldwin baby grand piano in her living room and played “September Song” and “St. Louis Blues.” Her fingers, nails painted red, glided over the keys with a poise polished by practice since age 6.

“She plays everything from gospel to jazz to blues to classical,” Reed said of Meador, who at 96 sang alto in a rendition of “Love Me Tender” with an Elvis impersonator at a town festival.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that she truly is a treasure,” Reed added. “She helps us to remember who we were, and challenges us to continue the service that was started so long ago here in town.”

On Sunday afternoon, First Baptist plans to celebrate that legacy.

Frances, John Benton and Joe Bill Meador will perform a recital in which the sons will sing with their mother, who will also be playing such hymns as “Because He Lives,” “How Great Thou Art” and “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” on the church’s grand piano.

Religion, Pages 14 on 01/30/2010

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