SHENANDOAH, Iowa – The news here, as you’ve probably read on the home page of this website, is that the family of the late Isabel Spears has donated $20,000 in her honor to the Shenandoah Iowa Education Foundation to help enhance the music programs in our schools.
So let’s start thinking about how we can properly celebrate that gift. I propose a concert.
Isabel, who died at 97 in the summer of 2016, was by all accounts one of the best “play-by-ear” pianists ever around here.
“She got her start playing publicly as a young girl playing in a movie theater,” her son Roger Spears, 63, said by phone from his home in Durham, N.C. “While the projectionist was changing film reels during the show, Mom would play piano to keep the people entertained.
“She played in church, she played for nearly every club meeting she attended, as the years went by she’d stop out at Elm Heights (the nursing home) and play for the residents there.” Her obituary quoted her saying that she played her piano every morning “just to get herself started.”
Roger said his mother “could listen to recordings by Rodgers & Hammerstein and the other greats from the American songbook, then sit down at the piano and play right through them without every looking at music. Her real brilliance was that she could always pick out the perfect baseline with her left hand while she was doing that – it was like it came out of nowhere. I’d sometimes ask her, ‘Mom, how’d you come up with that note you played right there?’ She’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t know – it just seemed like the note I should play there.’ “
When Isabel was 80 years old, Roger talked both his parents – his father Dale was still alive then – to come visit his family, then living in Raleigh, N.C.
“For her birthday, I surprised her by getting her a recording session in a studio out here,” Roger said. “She sat down and played 16 songs – all of them on the first take – and we made her a cassette out of it.” It was titled, simply, “Isabel Spears.” Roger said one of the highlights of his own piano-playing life is that one of the songs on that is “Heart & Soul,” on which he shared the keyboard with her.
That cassette of Isabel's songs was played on the sound system after her funeral last year.
Roger took lessons for 12 years from boyhood, but then didn’t play as much while he was building a 40-year career in architecture that took him to Texas, the Far East, Des Moines and then North Carolina. As he neared retirement, he started playing more, and now does occasional concerts – often with friends from the music faculty at North Carolina State University. He also plays in a bluegrass band.
So when the time is right, I think we should bring Roger Spears back home to Shenandoah to sit down at a piano and play his mother Isabel’s favorites, sharing favorite stories about her, his father Dale, late brother Sam and other family members.
“I’d be pleased to do that,” he said.
There will be times he won’t have to come far. As he settled his mother’s estate and sold the Spears farm just south of Shenandoah at the corner of U.S. Highway 59 and Iowa Highway 2, he “carved out a 4-acre parcel from the farmland, and I plan to build a little house or studio where I can stay when it’s not too cold.”
When he starts telling stories about Isabel McQueen Spears, listeners will quickly realize what a remarkable person she was.
She grew up on the McQueen farm in the Locust Grove area, further south of Shenandoah, and graduated in 1937 from Northboro High School, where she was involved in everything. “She was particularly proud that she’d been a crackerjack defensive guard on a 6-on-6 basketball team,” Roger said. “I’ve got a photo of her in her basketball uniform, and I must say she looks quite confident.”
She studied cosmetology in Council Bluffs, then practiced for several years at salons in Shenandoah. She also worked in accounting for a time at the Farmers Cooperative.
But always there was music and art.
“You name any form of art, she tried it,” Roger Spears said. “She painted with oils, acrylics, water colors. She was a great gardener and floral arranger. She also enjoyed doing dining table arrangements, she drew, she wrote a little poetry."
In 1972, when the Spears family had to give up their farmhouse to make room for an expansion of the intersection of the highways, they decided to build a new one close by – and Isabel personally designed it.
“She loved that house,” Roger said. “She lived in it until she died – in her favorite chair in the living room.”
In later years, one of her favorite times each year was when the choir from the Congregational United Church of Christ would come caroling in December. “Mom would decorate the whole house for that,” Roger said. “Several Christmas trees, wreaths and other decorations. And she’d go all-out on treats for the singers, too.”
Rev. Jenny Folmar, pastor of the Congregational church, said the choir members looked to those caroling visits almost as much as Isabel did.
“I knew her the last three years of her life, and for most of that, she was an absolute firecracker,” Pastor Folmar said. “She was sharp as a tack, a strong woman, a very creative woman and she loved making a production out of anything she was involved in. For most of her life, she was fiercely independent, handled her own finances and wanted to do things her way. I still miss her to this day.”
With the family’s generous contribution in Isabel’s name, she’ll make a difference in young lives long into the future. And we should all celebrate that.
You can write Chuck Offenburger, a member of the board of the Shenandoah Iowa Education Foundation, by email at chuck@Offenburger.com.