April 10, 2007
Dawson-- Some people add beauty to the world, even with their broken dreams. One man believed in his dream so much that he drew a fictitious concert tour on a roadmap that went all the way through the Midwest, but the tour never happened.
"I had in mind being a concert pianist. I had it planned. I was going to the Cincinnati Conservatory, but I never got there," says Ralph McGill, as he played the piano in the living room of his home on Pecan St.
His beloved mother taught him to play the piano at the age of four, after he pestered her to teach him, frequently interrupting her playing. Little did she know that, in effect, she arranged a marriage between her son and the piano at such an early age.
"All I wanted to do was play the piano," says Ralph who laments that he should have paid more attention to romance when he was a teenager.
He never married, even though he's played for literally hundreds of weddings, some former students.
Mr. Ralph, and most people call him, is a student's teacher, something unheard of long ago.
"He let me play whatever I wanted," says Judy Tennille, one of his students 50 years ago who still lives in Dawson and plays the piano at her church. She credits his willingness to let her decide as the reason she continues to enjoy the instrument.
Mr. Ralph tries to please his audiences. For 22 years he has played at the senior center, and try, as best they can to find a song he doesn't know, he always plays the one they request.
"Nobody has stumped him yet," says Marie Israel as she plays an air piano while Mr. Ralph plays "Love Me Tender" on the real one.
He plays at nursing homes each week, plays at funerals and at weddings and just about any event where an audience wants quality music. He doesn't volunteer; he must get asked.
"Some people may not want me to play; may not like my kind of music" says Mr. Ralph who knows so many songs of every musical style that he lost count long ago.
Rarely does he turn down an invitation to play, but does on rare occasions. He remembers when two former piano students wanted to get married on the same day and they wanted him to play. He tried his best to find a way to make their wishes come true, but he couldn't physically get from one wedding to the other in time.
There was a time in his life when he tried to leave music to work the family farm. Mr. Ralph had two profitable years when the financial bottom fell out.
"'53 bent me and '54 broke me," says Mr. Ralph who sold groceries to stores for two years to pay his farm debts. (He credits local banks with a tremendous amount of understanding to keep the farm off the auction block and in the family. Their cooperativeness remains music to his ears.)
A customer asked Ralph if he would teach her eight year-old daughter to play the piano. He reluctantly agreed with one stipulation: she couldn't tell anyone that he provided lessons. Word got out anyway, and shortly he had 15 students providing enough income for him to leave the grocery business for full time piano teaching.
People knew of his extraordinary talent when he attended high school, and a local church musician offered him the chance to play the organ. He jumped at the opportunity, even though he knew nothing about one. She taught him everything he needed to know. That was 67 years ago.
He plays the organ at the First Baptist Church of Dawson, and recently completed 57 years at its keyboard.
"I've never heard anyone play better," says Virginia Little, who has attended the church for the past 55 years.
How long does he plan to continue? "As long as I can get up and go to the bench," says Ralph just before services on Easter Sunday morning.
One other condition might cause him to sit back and let someone else play the organ dedicated to him. "Somebody might move in and is really an expert organist that will lay me in the shade," says Ralph.
If so, and it's highly unlikely, he says he'll sit back and take notes.