Gracie Peterson, the Voice of 20th Century Monmouth, died Tuesday at the age of 104.
When I was growing up here in Monmouth, I went to every city music event Monmouth had to offer, and Gracie was often there. It wasn’t difficult to persuade her to sing and/or to play piano. Even her formal retirement from show business at large did not stop her from taking the stage. Retirement only meant she had time to travel, to see the world. We were privileged again to see her each time she came home and gave us all the musical play-by-play of her peregrinations.
Gracie, as one story goes, was initially self-taught at the piano, and displayed such talent that even her later formal instruction could not suppress her sense of style. I had taken inspiration from her, therefore, to buy myself a keyboard at auction, and have been in the process -- for quite some time --of trying to do the same (having the disadvantage of receiving lessons, briefly, in my dissolute youth, and promptly forgetting all but the bad habits). Still, I doubt I will ever have the nerve to play publicly, lacking Gracie’s élan as she played for open mike night at Meling's Restaurant and Lounge (also now gone and rather much missed). She wasn’t easily imitated or emulated.
Aside from the near-weekly appearances she made at Meling's for many years, Gracie was also ever-present at our city’s celebratory events, as well as many of Monmouth College’s musical galas -- including her occasional performances with other alumni and alumnae, during reunions and gatherings. Gracie never seemed to change -- her back was straight yet never rigid, her puckish smile prominent as she stood before the city and gave us her everything. Whenever she stood under the spotlight she seemed to completely own the stage, without ever showing a stripe of egotism, without ever giving the impression that she was fully aware of the blaze of energy she was.
There was an interlude, shortly before she turned 100, when one of the television networks sent somebody to do a brief biographical sketch (they were putting together, if I recall correctly, a news article featuring centenarians). When the segment was aired, they had left off virtually all of what made Gracie and the others so young for their years: they were more than alive -- they were lively. Each one had a presence beyond time, and, in my opinion, the lady under our Midwestern lights was best of them all. Gracie may have been barely a blip on that myopic network news screen, but she was something to behold as a star of this community and beyond.
When she completely retired from public life and moved to a nursing home less than a handful of years ago, her family auctioned off a few of her belongings which they couldn’t find space for and the college couldn’t take care of. It was not at all strange to see how many people were there to buy, not simply because she had fine things, but because they all wanted to have a piece of her life in theirs. I have a well-traveled hat box which was once hers, and I've tucked it up where I can see it each time I come in the front door. To me, it belongs here. Gracie was, and likely always will be, a piece of this city, a piece of home.
Gracie became the embodiment of song in this community.
Picture, if you will, a somewhat sturdy -- mostly in manner -- woman with a sharp nose and high rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes beneath a knot of hair always kept in a tidy bun to match her tidy manner of dress. She is not ostentatious, but neat, attractive, and with just enough color to catch your eye. She sits at the piano, and the room goes silent -- but only for a moment. With a few strokes of those ivories, Gracie manages to get the entire crowd singing along, gesturing to match the lyrics of her song. You can't help yourself, you have to join in the mirth. The song, the laughter, continue to echo across the college campus, down Broadway, around the town square, and out along north Main Street near the bypass. "At Monmouth College, We get our knowledge! We dippa the ink and pusha the pen along..."
The melody lingers on.