SILVERTON, Idaho – Melodies from classic hymns waft through the lobby of the Silver Wood Good Samaritan Center on Tuesday evenings, switching to the livelier beat of dance hall music on Thursday afternoon.
On organ and piano, Catherine Owen’s nimble fingers keep residents of the Silver Valley care center connected to music.
The 99-year-old musician spends several hours each week playing at the care center near her home. She was recently honored as Idaho’s senior volunteer of the year.
“Generally, they’re glad to see me,” Owen said of the residents. “They don’t all sing, but they all listen.”
Owen plays jazz and ballroom tunes that residents might have fox-trotted or waltzed to when they were young, American folk songs, hymns and spirituals.
She’s attuned to the residents’ favorites, because those were the songs of her generation, too.
“I’ll try anything short of the 1960s,” Owen said of her repertoire, though she makes an exception for “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” recorded in 1962 by Tony Bennett.
Owen is an inspiration in North Idaho’s volunteer community, said Bob Small, director of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, who nominated her for the state award.
“She’s got the enthusiasm, compassion and caring that you don’t see very often,” Small said. “She said you’re never too old and never too young to volunteer.”
Owen laughs when she’s reminded of that comment. “I’m the example,” said the petite, cane-wielding woman, who will turn 100 in March.
In the small town of Silverton where she lives, Owen is known for her homemade cookies and eyewitness accounts of major events of the 20th century.
She survived the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 and worked three jobs during the Great Depression, including writing newspaper articles for 10 cents per column inch.
During World War II, her late husband, Dick, sharpened the drill bits for Silver Valley mines, which played a key role in supplying minerals for the war effort.
Though the couple didn’t have children, Owen spent 40 years running after-school programs for local kids.
She started volunteering at Silver Wood Good Samaritan Center in the 1980s, when her sister was a resident there. Playing for residents was natural.
Music has been a pivotal part of Owen’s life since her 9th birthday, when a piano ordered by her mother arrived in the small mining camp where her family lived.
The three-quarter grand piano was shipped by rail from Sandpoint to Cabinet, Mont. It crossed the Clark Fork River by ferry, after being loaded onto a wagon.
Owen and her older sister took piano lessons. Her older sister learned how to read music, but the fidgety Owen quickly realized that she could memorize the melodies and play by ear.
She became the backup pianist for her mother, who played for dances at the local community hall.
Though Owen later learned how to read music, she’s mostly a self-taught musician.
Her ability to play dozens of songs by heart is a bonus during the request time at the care center sing-alongs, because she’s not shuffling through stacks of music.
Owen credits her volunteer work for her longevity.
Even at 99, she has a sincere desire to help and encourage others, said Small, the volunteer coordinator.
“She told me that if people would think about the needs of others instead of their own wants, our country, society and world would be a much better place.”