Friday, December 18, 2009

Retirees are young in song

The Balladeers, a chorus of men age 74 to 93, are dedicated to and excited by their craft.

Buffie Gearhart  (left) directs the singing group the Balladeers at their last Christmas performance of the year at Floyd Baptist Church. The group consists of members of the Brandon Oaks Retirement Community.

Don Petersen | Special to The Roanoke Times

Buffie Gearhart (left) directs the singing group the Balladeers at their last Christmas performance of the year at Floyd Baptist Church. The group consists of members of the Brandon Oaks Retirement Community.

Buffie Gearhart directs the Balladeers.

Buffie Gearhart directs the Balladeers.

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Thirteen years ago, a small group of men gathered around the piano at the Brandon Oaks Retirement Community to belt out a few Irish tunes. It was St. Patrick's Day and many residents enjoyed the listening to the music.

That was the start of the Balladeers, said Buffie Gearhart, a Brandon Oaks resident. It's an all-men's chorus made up of residents from Brandon Oaks in Roanoke. The group members' ages range from 74 to 93 years old.

Gearhart joined the group as director nine years ago just after her husband, Bill. He still sings bass in the choir. Buffie Gearhart said that, at 88 years old, she gets tired easily, but during practices she becomes inspired. The singing, in fact, helps keep the participants involved -- and moving.

"They are the most loyal group I have ever directed. At times, they have to drop out for an operation or illness," she said. "Then their biggest concern is to get well enough to get back to rehearsals."

Gearhart explained that one member had chemotherapy treatments and still made it to his afternoon rehearsal on time.

This singing group's dedication shows in their professionalism as well. Of the 21 members, only seven can read music or had sung in a choir or chorus before joining the Balladeers.

"They love the old hymns," Gearhart said. "They learn by rote the songs they do not know, working very hard every Monday for one and a half hours."

There are three original members still singing with the Balladeers: Paul Huddle, Littleton Nance and Bob Fischer. Huddle is a 93-year-old tenor and the most senior member. He considers his membership with the group something to be grateful for.

"It's given me a chance to be of service in a different way," Huddle said.

Huddle is also an ordained Lutheran minister and family genealogist.

Gearhart said the Balladeers are composed of a diverse group of men. There are former engineers, teachers, Army chaplains, lawyers and doctors. Although many have grown up in the Roanoke Valley, there are members from as far away as Texas and Florida. In fact, the only thing these men have in common is their address. They all live at Brandon Oaks.

The only exception to this rule is Sandra Gisiner. Gisiner is the group's accompanist. She's referred to as "God's gift" by Gearhart because of the time Gisiner volunteers so regularly.

The Balladeers stay on a strict weekly practice schedule. From January to June, they ready themselves for the next season's program. August through December is spent working on their upcoming Christmas program. The group performs for local churches throughout the year and at the basketball and baseball games.

Although their performance schedule changes from month to month, December is always one of their busiest. Gearhart said they've performed in Botetourt County, Floyd, Wytheville and Roanoke over the past two weeks.

As the oldest member of the Balladeers, Huddle looks forward to next year and the year after that.

When asked how long he plans to sing Huddle said: "I don't know ... how long the Lord leaves me here."

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