In a quiet corner of a busy nursing home, a young girl pulls a bow across a century old instrument and earnestly offers the twin gifts of music and memories.
Her audience, an 87-year old birthday boy, grins widely and follows the notes back to a bustling house on Broad Street in Menasha where the multi-talented Helen Flannigan Spalding and her husband Tom raised eight children, including him, the youngest, John Sheridan Spalding.
A concert pianist, Helen hosted family sing-a-longs, and built her home on the firm pillars of faith, education, love and generosity.
“She used to feed the hoboes who came off the freight trains lunch,” John recalled while enjoying some post-concert chocolate birthday cake. “I would sneak out to the back porch to listen to their stories. My dad later found out that the hoboes had marked the street curb in front of our house and that’s why so many of them came around looking for a good meal.”
Born in 1893, Helen graduated from Downer College (which merged in 1964 with Lawrence University). She focused so adeptly on education that all eight of her children also graduated from college and went on to lead very productive lives, including a ground-breaking nurse, an actress, a priest, a professor and several successful businessmen.
In addition to learning, Helen loved music and she filled the Spalding home with it. She played the violin, willed it to her daughter Pat Crockett (the nurse), who later gave it to her nephew Peter, who played it throughout his childhood and then gave it to his Grandpa John.
My mom had the violin refurbished for John and hired Appleton North senior Kayla Schang to play it for him on his birthday. It wasn’t her biggest audience, Kayla has played on multiple occasions to a full house at the Performing Arts Center, but, it may have been her sweetest.
My husband Vince became a makeshift music stand, holding still and cradling the book in his hands while Kayla played to John, my mom and me. But, mostly, to John.
I appreciated the opportunity to meet Helen Flannigan Spalding through the rich notes of her sturdy violin and I’d like to take this opportunity to wish salute her and to wish her youngest son a Happy, Happy Birthday.
Here’s a little taste of the concert: