CONSHOHOCKEN — Years ago, the late Rosarie Geiger would spend most Saturday mornings at Conshohocken’s Marshall Lee Towers, playing the piano and directing a chorus called the Music Makers. The group was sponsored by the nearby Fellowship House community center and hosted periodic public performances, including its popular Christmas show.
These days, 98-year-old Louise Higgs Smith is filling MLT’s lobby with music.
When Smith — a mostly self-taught pianist who has “loved music for as long as I can remember” — moved into the 80-unit housing complex in 2007, the Music Makers and Geiger’s piano were mere memories. But after she learned a friend’s piano was no longer being used, Smith arranged for it to be moved to MLT, and she’s been giving it a workout ever since — hymns, holiday carols, you name it.
“Maybe that’s why the Good Lord has left me here so long,” she reasons. “Not that I have any complaints. The Lord has been good to me. My apartment is on the sixth floor, facing west, so I get to see the sun set every day. I call that my ‘whoopee.’
“I’ve been very lucky. My hands are straight, not gnarled. I play with two hands and can [reach] nine keys. I can still write pretty well, too … not shaky like some people when they get older. I’m in good physical shape. I take lots of vitamins, and my left knee is bad so I use a walker, but I don’t have arthritis, so that’s a blessing. My doctor said I have the heart of a 45-year-old.”
An assertive, no-nonsense 45-year-old who admonishes, “Now, don’t make this writeup too flowery. That’s just not me.”
Staying busy apparently is.
Smith and a group of fellow tenants get together in the building’s community room once a week for Rummikub (“we just call it tile”) and puzzle sessions.
“It’s fun … something to look forward to,” she says fresh from an outing to Lancaster for the American Music Theatre’s Christmas Show and getting ready to attend a pre-Thanksgiving luncheon for seniors at Conshohocken Elementary School.
Smith was born in Conshohocken, the oldest of four sisters, and spent most of her childhood in the borough. She attended Conshohocken Elementary School (and the old Barren Hill School for a year following her family’s move to Cold Point in the mid-1930s) and has fond memories of overnight stays at her paternal grandparents’ home in Ashland (“in the coal region near Pottsville”) during school vacations.
“We never went to the shore or the mountains,” Smith says. “I don’t think I even saw the shore until I was 18, but I always enjoyed going to my grandparents’. I remember picking blueberries with my grandfather … and cutting out pictures of furniture and rooms from the Sears catalog and [arranging] them on the steps while my grandmother was asleep in the afternoon. She’d pare her potatoes for dinner, then she’d take a nap … simple things, but I had fun doing them.”
Her family eventually returned to Conshohocken, and Smith graduated from the former Conshohocken High School in 1939. In October 1941 — two months “before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and we entered the war” — she and her late husband, Ralph, a Harmonville resident, got married and settled in Plymouth Meeting, where they raised four children: Ralph Jr., called “Bernie,” Earl, Charlotte and Douglass. Her family also includes several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Younger sister Frances Ellam lives in Conshohocken, and the two are close — “Fran’s a real gem,” Smith says. Sister Ginny Rodenbaugh is deceased, and the youngest Higgs sibling, June Scott, lives out of state.
When her children got older, Smith did retail work at area Sears stores and was a longtime volunteer with Colonial Neighborhood Council’s Meals on Wheels program.
“Now, I get Meals on Wheels delivered to me, and when that started, Sandy [Fryer, CNC executive director[ joked, ‘It’s about time after all the work you did for (the program),'” she laughs.
Smith calls her current role as informal MLT pianist “pure pleasure.”
“I just love playing … anytime at all — in the evening, afternoon, whenever I feel like it … and I think just about everyone gets pleasure from music,” she says. “When I hear music on TV, my foot moves with the beat. The Christmas Show in Lancaster had some beautiful music. Everything about it was wonderful. The lighting, the costumes … it was all exquisite.”
Her “secret” for staying so mentally and physically vigorous after close to a century?
“I give all the credit to the Lord,” Smith says. “I thank him for this wonderful life I’ve had every day. Even after I go to the store … I thank him for letting me go to the store … for giving me one more day to enjoy life.”