When Percy Rinker sold his two businesses 10 years ago, he found himself struggling with the slower pace of retired life.
He was only 59 but still had plenty of energy to keep going. He tried some odd jobs. Still unsatisfied, he turned to music.
Rinker took up the electronic keyboard and learned to play it in six months as a retirement hobby. Then, he put his newfound talent to work performing at nursing homes and retirement centers.
Today, Rinker is one of the most active members of Project Joy, a volunteer group that entertains the elderly in retirement facilities.
“They love him,” said his wife, Ruthie.
Rinker protests: “I get more out of it than they do.”
He plays all their old-time favorites. He has three cardboard boxes of sheet music in the basement of his Browne Mountain home, titles such as Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” from 1919, and Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick out of You” from 1935.
The seniors might forget the titles, but they always remember the tunes, he said.
Rinker was raised on a wheat ranch near Lind, Wash., and learned to play the piano as a child by the sound of the notes. He continued to plunk away through the years.
He got hooked on the keyboard when he visited a music store and signed up for free lessons eight years ago. The store let him practice on its instruments until he bought his own.
Now he owns one of the best keyboards made, he said. It’s a Technics model that retails for about $6,000.
He uses the keyboard to program accompaniments to give him the sound of a trio or quartet. But don’t ask him to sing. He said his voice can’t carry a tune.
“I try to be as laid-back as possible,” he said, describing his style. “I just want to be one of the guys.”
Sometimes the music brings tears to his listeners’ eyes, he said. Sometimes the elders in his audiences start singing along.
“I feel they need a load off their shoulders to sit back and relax and forget about their problems,” he added.
Rinker said he’s made hundreds of appearances over the years, at a pace of one or two a week.
He said it’s better than any job. Not only is it fun, but Rinker doesn’t feel tied down to performing like he would if he were working.
For years, Rinker ran a hairstyling shop in the Tri-Cities, cutting both men’s and women’s hair. He later sold the shop and bought a bar during what he described as a midlife crisis.
The bar was a lot of work and he wasn’t raking in money, so he sold it, too, landing himself in early retirement.
When he first took up the keyboard, he said he tested his wife’s patience with his off-key practicing.
“I made a lot of mistakes,” he admitted. “I couldn’t get my fingers on the right keys.”
The couple have been married since 1948, so apparently love is stronger than wrong notes.
Until he started playing for seniors, Rinker said he had no idea just how many people in Spokane are living in institutional settings.
“I’m still going to places I’ve never been before,” he said.
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