Living

Proving it's never too late to learn, retiree discovers 88 keys to happiness

Harlan Creech fell in love with the piano when Woodrow Wilson was president.

It was 1920 and Creech was 8 - a creek-splashing, rabbit-trapping dreamer stuck with a squeaky violin his parents made him play. His sister got the piano, which sounded to him like a sunny day set to music. He's wanted to play ever since.

Creech grew up to be a husband, a father and a Methodist minister - a job where he made time for everyone but himself.

Helping folks cope with life's burdens taught him that you don't always get to have what you love most. And even when you do, you may not get to keep it.

But he also discovered that if you don't give up, keep pushing forward, there might be a second chance.

That's what happened with the piano. When he finally got his hands on the keys, it would ease the pain of his own deep loss.

Creech will be 95 this week. At a time of life when most people cling to the familiar - playing bridge, working crossword puzzles or pursuing other hobbies they've perfected for years - he's thrown himself into a whole new world. He delights in the struggle to turn sharps and flats into Mozart and "Over the Rainbow."

It's not unusual for retirees to take up the piano. But Creech's teacher, Dzidra Reimanis, has never heard of anyone beginning lessons so late in life. She ought to know - she's 80 and has been teaching for 50 years.

Creech knows he'll never be a great pianist. He just wants to be able to turn out respectable versions of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and other hymns his wife, Beckie, used to play.

"If you get moody or blue, you just sit down at the piano and it lifts you out of the gloomy attitude," he said. "The sun is shining and the earth's not dead and people are wonderful.

"Everything's right."

At Creech's east Charlotte home, the melody in 4/4 time is unmistakable.

1-2-3-4. So-ome-whe-ere.

1-2-and-3-4. O-ver-the-rain-bow.

Creech sits stick-straight, practicing at the modest, brown spinet in his living room. He bought the piano for Beckie in 1935 - paying $15 a month for more than two years, at a time when he only earned $1,200 a year.

He tries to play the notes at a walking pace, with one step following another in a continuous flow. But the sound is more step-pause-step, like the Tin Man in need of his oilcan.

Creech gets the notes right. But, like all beginners, it takes time to feel the rhythm.

His hands, freckled with age spots, move easily across the keys. Sometimes he'll practice for more than two hours, despite arthritis in his fingers.

As a kid growing up in Hickory, N.C., Creech always thought he'd be good at piano. "It was a secret dream," he said.

He was in his 40s when he signed up for his first lessons, with the organist of a church he pastored in Lenoir, N.C. Before he could begin, the bishop transferred him to Charlotte.

Dilworth United Methodist Church had double the number of members as Lenoir. Creech would have 15 different members to visit each day, and would run as hard as he could to reach 12 of them.

"Some would get sick and die," he said, "before I got to visit."

There was barely time for Beckie and their three sons, much less piano lessons.

Beckie loved playing the piano as much as Creech enjoyed listening. Her favorites were simple hymns like "Breathe on Me Breath of God," which filled their home as well as the smaller churches where he worked.

Creech likes to see his wife many times during the day. Three identical photos of her sit on a desk, a hutch and an end table near her piano in the living room. In the bedroom, she smiles from 13 different pictures.

They were college students at Lenoir Rhyne in Hickory, both 18, when they ran away to York, S.C., to get married on Easter Monday 1931. She was the popular daughter of a Gastonia judge, fluent in Bach, Michelangelo and classic literature. He was the shy, football-playing son of a Hickory teacher, a C-student and a late bloomer.

She could have had any man on campus, but she said yes to Creech. He couldn't believe his luck.

Beckie's strong faith helped inspire Creech to become a minister. Ideas from her voracious reading became some of his best sermons. Her naturally sunny spirit lifted him any time he felt discouraged.

Their love endured drafty parsonages with outdoor toilets, moves every four years to a new church, and laundry done on a washboard instead of in the washing machines Beckie had grown up with.

They were married for almost 66 years when Beckie died of a heart attack in 1996.

She'd been sick for three years. Creech was up day and night caring for her and lost weight from the strain.

"We're going to have two funerals instead of one," his sons warned, finally convincing him to move their mother to a nursing home.

When she died, Creech stopped eating. He didn't want to leave the house. He couldn't shake the sadness.

He called one of his sons, who took his father to the psychiatric ward at Presbyterian Hospital. There, Creech was treated for depression for two weeks.

"I was under lock and key," he said. "I just wanted to go off in a corner, fold up and brood."

He resented seeing a psychiatrist every day. But their sessions, plus antidepressants, turned him around. After he left the hospital, Creech was telling a friend who was in her 90s about his sorrow. Her reaction stunned him.

Harlan, I'm ashamed of you, she said. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. What you need to do is get busy doing things for others.

So the minister who'd been retired for 19 years went to talk to his own pastor. Creech asked to help visit shut-ins - and came home with more than 20 names.

"By the time I got to the end of the list," he said, "I was well."

Like a lot of seniors, Creech had used something familiar to plug himself back into life after a loss. But he didn't stop there.

He signed up for ballroom dance lessons. Learned how to clean his own house. Began making soup and pasta sauce from tomatoes he grows in his garden.

Then, two years ago, he went after his secret dream.

Creech schedules piano lessons twice a month - between trips to the beach and the mountains to play golf and bridge with friends he met in dance class.

One of them is Dot Roberts, whose husband died the same year as Beckie. She started out as Creech's dance partner and is now his girlfriend. Her photos hang throughout his house right along with Beckie's.

"He never wants to sit one out," said Roberts, 67. "Sometimes I have to tell him, 'Go dance with Marlene for a while so I can rest.' "

Looking jaunty in a polo shirt and black-and-silver running shoes, Creech arrives at his teacher's home for a lesson.

Reimanis said she'll have a hymn book ready next time. He's made enough progress to start learning the music he and Beckie loved.

When he plays "Over the Rainbow," his teacher praises his improved chords - then reaches across the keyboard to demonstrate a tricky rhythm. The second time through, Creech gets closer to the pacing he has worked so hard to achieve.

"Somewhere over the rainbow," the song says, "skies are blue. And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true."

Reimanis encourages him to take his time on the piece. "Don't be in a hurry to end it," she said.

But it's hard for Harlan Creech to slow down. He doesn't want to miss anything - whether it's a walk at sunrise or a pingpong match or a Friday-night dance.

"I've begun a new chapter in my life," he said. "I can make it what I want."

When Creech sits down at the piano, the music fills him with the sunlight that Beckie used to bring. At the same time, it's the perfect accompaniment for his new life.

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