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Published: Monday, 7/24/2006

'Piano Man' whisks fans to another era

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Olan Snavely, an Alzheimer's volunteer, tickles the keys at Sunset House before his appreciative listeners. Olan Snavely, an Alzheimer's volunteer, tickles the keys at Sunset House before his appreciative listeners.
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Olan Snavely, known as the Piano Man, is a bit of a magician.

Seated firmly on his piano bench, he whisks away his audience. Back in time. Down memory lane.

Each month he performs a medley of songs at a variety of places, and his dedication to his audiences has earned him applause and a special honor.

The 93-year-old Toledo resident earlier this year won a Silver Award for his volunteer work with the Alzheimer's Association Northwest Ohio Chapter. He was honored during the Medical Mutual of Ohio Outstanding Senior Volunteer Awards, and as a regional winner, he's now in the running for a state award.

The winner will be announced in October in Cleveland.

"He's a wonderful volunteer. He recognizes how his music touches the lives of others," said Amy Knieriem, respite director at the Alzheimer's Association adult day center at 2500 North Reynolds Rd. in Toledo. "Everyone who comes here has memory loss. Many cannot communicate through words, but they are obviously moved by the music. They sing along; they tap their toes, and they clap their hands." Sometimes, they get up and dance.

Soft-spoken and gracious, Mr. Snavely is pleased to share his gift of music with others. It's his commitment to others; it's his purpose in life. His story, they say, is heartwarming. His story, he says, is a love story.

When he was a child, Olan's mother "lovingly forced" him to take piano lessons. "We had a piano in our home, but I can't for the world remember where it came from," said Mr. Snavely, a retired engineer, following his performance at the Sunset House on Indian Road in Toledo last week.

He wasn't particularly fond of practicing the piano, but he continued to take lessons through high school. He lost interest in the keyboard, but was drawn back to the piano by his wife seven years ago.

"I never had much interest in playing until Lucille was in a nursing home," he recalled. She took great joy in listening to him play the piano in the nursing home's activity hall. He played for her and the other nursing home residents. "They were my first audience."

Three years before she died, "Lucille lost contact with the world," Mr. Snavely said. "But I just continued to play for her." And he played for others with Alzheimer's disease. They seemed to connect in some way to the music, he said.

Although he was a bit rusty, Mr. Snavely practiced, practiced, practiced. He fine-tuned his amazing play list. And, he memorized more than 100 songs on that list. Popular dance songs from the 1920s. Romantic selections from the 1930s. Patriotic, hand-over-your-heart songs. And for good measure, a few "fight songs" from colleges and universities.

When Mrs. Snavely died, he stopped playing. But a few months later, he was ready to reach out to others, and he wanted to once again play for Alzheimer's patients. There was a glitch - the adult day center didn't have a piano, but in 2002, a caregiver donated a piano, and since then Mr. Snavely has played there on a regular basis.

He rotates his weekly schedule. He plays, too, at the Sunset House and at the senior community in Toledo where he lives. On a recent afternoon, about 40 people, mostly women, filled a room at the Sunset House.

For Anita Perrin, who says she has an awful time sitting still when she hears Mr. Snavely play, the songs trigger memories of 15-cent dance tickets tucked in loaves of Wonder Bread. Years and years ago, teen-aged girls gathered the tickets and headed for the local ballroom, she recalled.

"His songs take us back to those days when we did not have any cares," she said. "I just think he's wonderful."

At the end of each weekly musical session, Mr. Snavely playfully performs his signature piece: "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone."

Contact Janet Romaker at: jromaker@theblade.com or 419-724-6006.



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