Rosemary Bell had her first piano lesson when she was 6 years old and hasn’t stopped playing since. She went on to become a music teacher and share her love of music with her students for 30 years.
Bell grew up in Searcy, and she said she considers it her hometown because she’s been there almost all her life.
“I lived three years in Beebe. Right before I started the first grade, my family moved down there, and my daddy managed a tire store,” Bell said. “I went to my first three years of school in Beebe.”
Her parents, Truett and Mildred Langley, influenced her and encouraged her to pursue music.
“My parents were very involved in gospel music, and my mother played the piano quite well and she was going to teach me,” Bell said. “We only had one lesson. She cried and I cried, and that was the end of it.”
Bell’s mother wanted her to take piano lessons and learn how to play other types of music besides gospel.
“She was very insistent that I take formally,” Bell said. “I had a wonderful piano teacher here in Searcy, and it just progressed. I started doing all kinds of accompanying, and it became a big part of my life.”
Growing up, Bell started playing the piano at her church and for choirs in junior high and high school in Searcy, up through college.
“Most of the time, I didn’t sing,” Bell said. “I just played.”
Bell had dreams of becoming an accompanist for Broadway shows in New York City, but she decided to stay in Arkansas and pursue a degree in education.
“I had accompanied for years — since the eighth grade,” she said. “I loved accompanying, and when I was 17, I really wanted to go to New York to try to become a professional accompanist, but for a 17-year-old from Searcy, Ark., that was too big of a deal for me at that time.”
She went on to get a Bachelor of Music Education degree at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia and stayed another year to get a Master of Arts degree in music education.
“At that time, it was kind of hard to go out on your own with just a music degree,” she said. “I went ahead and pursued education, and it worked out for the best because that’s where I needed to be.”
She spent her first year as a music teacher in Hot Springs, then spent the rest of her career in education in Searcy.
“The first year I came back [to Searcy], they only had one music teacher in this whole system, and that’s the job I took,” Bell said. “I knew right away that elementary was my calling. After the second year I was there, [the Searcy School District] hired a high school and junior high teacher; then I was able to just concentrate on elementary.”
When she was the only music teacher, Bell had to travel all over the district to teach kindergarten through 12th grade.
“That first year [at Searcy], I would teach choir at the high school, and then I would go teach choir at the junior high. Then I went to another school and taught fourth through sixth grades. They started adding teachers after that,” she said.
She spent most of her time teaching music at Sidney Deener Elementary School in Searcy. Music brought joy to the children she got to teach each day, Bell said.
“The most important thing to me was to find boys and girls that maybe didn’t excel as well in basic academics, but that joy of seeing themselves perform and accomplish something — that was probably the most important to me,” she said.
“I always thought that you could teach your subject matter, but first of all, [you had to remember] you were teaching children.”
When Bell’s husband had a serious heart attack in 1984, a past interest of hers found its way back into her life. She took seven years out of her teaching career to do some part-time work and get a degree in licensed practical nursing.
“I went into nursing to see if I could help my husband in any way that I needed to, but most of it was because I was interested in it,” Bell said.
Her son was in the fourth grade at the time, and he ended up helping her study for her tests in nursing school.
“He would sit with me at night and ask me questions for my tests,” she said. “I had been out of school for so long, and it was a completely different field.”
Though it didn’t take her seven years to complete her LPN degree, Bell said, she took time to teach private piano lessons and work as her church’s music secretary while she wasn’t teaching at Sidney Deener Elementary School.
She went back to work as a teacher, but she kept doing one thing through all of her jobs — playing piano for her church, First Baptist Church in Searcy. She always found herself on the piano bench at church until last year.
“After I joined [First Baptist Church] with my husband, I started playing the piano there. I retired from that last year, and it had been 39 years,” Bell said.
When she had a stroke, Bell said, she started realizing it was time for her to retire, though she didn’t suffer any residual effects as a result of the stroke.
“I started having arthritis in my hands, and I didn’t feel like I could play up to par like I wanted to,” she said. “I also felt like it was time for someone else to do it.”
Bell retired from teaching music in 2000, with 30 years of experience under her belt.
“I taught almost three generations of kids at Searcy,” she said. “I taught kids of kids. It was kind of fun to remember how the parent was and to see if their kids were the same or different.”
After she retired, Bell said, she found time to travel with her husband, who retired the same year she did.
“I love to travel,” she said. “We’ve been on a Mediterranean cruise, we’ve been to
London, to British Columbia, and we’ve been to New York, which is my favorite place.”
Bell and her husband enjoy going to Broadway shows in the Big Apple.
“I love Broadway. I’ve played for a lot of high school musicals here,” she said. “I loved that because that’s really what I wanted to do when I wanted to go to New York [as a teenager].”
Though travel is a pastime of Bell’s, she can’t imagine living anywhere but Searcy.
“My family is all here, and we’re a very close-knit group,” she said.
Music will always play a big part in Bell’s life, she said, although she doesn’t play piano as much as she used to.
“I’ve been able to play myself out of a bad mood if I’m depressed,” she said.
Bell’s time with the Searcy School District was recognized on Thursday night, when she was inducted into the Searcy Education Foundation Hall of Honor as an outstanding educator.
“I was pleasantly surprised [when I found out I was being inducted],” she said. “I always think in terms of more academic teachers receiving this honor rather than the arts.”
Staff writer Lisa Burnett can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.