Turning over the keys

Virginia Woods and Verta Blake are musical and they believe in the power of music to change lives. That’s just how they roll.

The two ladies have become the musical face of the companion suppers at Chester Baptist Church (CBC) over these last years. Blake is the new face of the music at the companion suppers that CBC sponsors twice a month.

So, you may say, what are the companion suppers? Back in 1998 church member Betty Lou Johnson, along with other church members, organized a weekly Thursday supper designed to bring together people eating at home alone for fellowship and food. The meals are homemade and served by volunteers.

The highlight of the dinners, beginning at about 5:30, is the musical accompaniment – the piano renderings of Woods, and now Blake. The two very dedicated ladies have graced the keys to share their musical talents every Thursday, and now on the first and third Thursdays of the month, at the church, September through May.

This September brings a change to the musical accompaniment that has graced the dinners. Virginia Woods, who has played the music for the past seven years, retired to the Crossings just recently.

Maybe it was too soon for her to retire; after all she is only 97 years old! She dearly misses playing the music now. “I still play but my hands are giving out,” Woods shared. “My hands can’t do what my mind tells them anymore.”

She would still do it if she could, but she took a fall and had to move to assisted living. She thinks about the suppers and how she got started. “When I started out in 2007 there were about 60 folks showing up for dinner and now the count is nearly 125 people,” she said.

She said back in 2007, she moved down from North Carolina to live with her daughter Sue. She came to the dinners and volunteered. They asked her to play a little music before dinner and after. She said, “I’d play about 25 minutes before and after.”

Woods played a lot of music for the servicemen. She played the Marines, Navy, Army and Air Force hymns. Then she’d play any oldies she knew. Even at the age of 97, she still knows most of the songs by memory. As time passed, she began to play the entire time folks had dinner because “dinner was so much nicer when there was music.”

She recounts a time that a Colonel and his wife came to dinner. She played one of the service anthems. He came over and told her how much it meant to him. “He said it was something wonderful,” she said. “He said it touched his heart deeply to hear me play the Navy anthem.” The retired Colonel who had a hard time getting around said he felt that a lot of people forget about our servicemen and Woods was celebrating that service.

For Woods, it’s been a true labor of love to serve and play the music at companion suppers. She said she will go back sometimes when she can get there. She remembers all the oldies like Home on the Range and When You Wore the Yellow Rose. It brings back memories of other times for the musician who got her degree in Music back in 1937.

Woods was the wife of a Baptist minister and graced churches from the U.S.A. to Germany with her musical talents.

“People here in Chester have been so wonderful,” she added. “The music brought back such sacred memories for everyone; some of those memories sad and some glad.”

She said it was a great blessing to her. “Everyone at companion suppers was so appreciative,” Wood said. “It touched my heart to see them respond to the music.”

So, it happened that Verta Blake, another lifelong musical person came into the picture. She had been a volunteer in the kitchen helping with the dinners for a few years when Woods came to her and asked if she would take her place.

Blake is the piano accompanist at Morrissett Funeral Home on Iron Bridge Road and she has taught piano and has been playing for many years. She began with pipe organ lessons at the age of 14.

So, now Blake takes the keyboard to play the music for the twice-monthly dinners. She said she “will continue to do my best, to try to follow in Virginia’s footsteps.” Blake plays many of the military anthems Woods did along with popular old tunes and hymns. “Some people come to the companion dinners and they are lonely and looking for community and the hymns and popular music is well-liked,” Blake said.

She said she sits down to the piano at about 5:30 p.m. and plays on through the dinners, with a few breaks. “They just really seem to enjoy the music,” she said. “Some of them come in early to hear the music; they are lonely, widowed, some don’t have enough to eat.” Blake is grateful to Panera Bread for donating breads and muffins which have helped to feed the growing crowd.

Both ladies believe that what they do is music therapy. Blake tells a story of her sister who was ill and couldn’t communicate any longer. When music was played, she sang a complete hymn even though she couldn’t really talk any longer.

Wood tells a similar story of a lady at the Crossings who wouldn’t respond and was despondent. They asked her to play and the former music teacher chimed in and started playing some again.

The ladies both agree that music therapy is good for everyone’s soul. Woods said, “Playing at those suppers has been a great, great blessing.”  

The musical pair is just grateful they’ve gotten to share their talents and both feel they’ve been extremely blessed by those gifts. “Music gets through when nothing else gets through to people,” said Blake. Woods also shared, “I was just an ordinary somebody, but I hope most were blessed by the music.”

These ladies give a gift to Chester – they shared their fingers across a keyboard to lift spirits and make magic through their gifts – music!

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