OKC pianist brings music, comfort to seniors during COVID pandemic | #seniorliving | #elderly | #seniors
The pianist saw himself as the unlikeliest of heroes.
Yet he became a super man to bring joy to his peers.
During the worst of the pandemic — at a time when they were isolated from family and friends — Richard Huggins and his gift of music brought comfort to the senior adults who lived in his Baptist Village senior living community.
Huggins, 72, thought his talent had seen better days because he was dealing with the effects of Parkinson’s disease.
But a chaplain knew otherwise.
In his youth, Huggins had played before hundreds of teenagers at Falls Creek, site of the beloved Oklahoma Baptist youth summer camp nestled in the Arbuckle Mountains near Davis. He’d fine tuned his skills at Oklahoma Baptist University where he earned a degree in music.
He counted the day he met and performed for renowned evangelist Billy Graham as one of his most unforgettable experiences. He served as pianist or organist at four Billy Graham Associate Crusades in the 1980s.
Knowing Huggins’ musical legacy, Chris Finley, Baptist Village Communities’ director of chaplain services, envisioned the pianist performing for his neighbors.
What would it take to get the piano man to share his talent?
“I feel that maybe Richard felt he was washed up, that his days of playing were over, but I kept pushing him,” Finley said.
With the chaplain’s gentle encouragement and some divine inspiration, Huggins became the hero.
He faced the difficulties brought on by Parkinson’s head on and performed for his friends at a time when they seemed to need it the most.
“Oh victory in Jesus, my Savior forever.
He sought me and bought me with His redeeming blood.
He loved me ‘ere I knew Him and all my love is due Him.
He plunged me to victory beneath the cleansing flood.”
And it was a victory — these performances that defied disease and the ravages of time to bring the solace and jubilation of music.
“I’m glad to do it. It’s an answer to prayer,” Huggins said of his piano sessions.
“I don’t have tremors in my hands. The Lord helped me overcome the ravages of Parkinson’s.”
‘Labor of love’ for OKC pianist
Huggins’ daughter, Krista Brittain of Edmond, knew just what those beloved hymns and popular selections meant for the Singing Saints Choir, a handful of older adults who gathered in a socially distanced manner to sing while her dad played piano.
She knew how those seniors who watched videotapes of Huggins’ performances with the choir were transported back to a time when they attended Falls Creek as teens or sat in the pews of their church among friends and family.
A certified nursing assistant, Brittain said she saw firsthand how COVID-19 forced many seniors into lonely silos that often led to depression.
So when Finley suggested that her dad perform for his senior community, Brittain knew it would help him as well as his neighbors. He had moved into Baptist Village in late March 2020 and had no idea that so many of his new neighbors remembered him from his youth.
“It was every bit as beneficial to him,” Brittain said.
“It truly was a labor of love.”
Brittain said Parkinson’s disease made her dad’s limbs so stiff that it was sometimes difficult for him to get out of bed, but he made the effort. He would make his way to the keyboard in his apartment so he could practice.
When it was time to perform, Huggins drove his motorized scooter over to the piano in the gymnasium and positioned himself onto the piano seat. Brittain said she sat next to her father because he relied on her physical support. Without it, he might slump over in the seat and be unable pull himself back up.
Huggins said he liked the idea of playing for a crowd again.
He said he could hear the different ways that Parkinson’s had affected his sound. His hands and fingers didn’t do exactly what he wanted them to do as they had years ago. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about 18 years ago and had several surgeries to combat the ailment.
“I know it’s not something that most people hear. I just wanted to be better,” he said, assessing his performances.
Still, Huggins said he liked doing something that caused other people so much enjoyment. Making people happy through music was one of the reasons he was drawn to the piano in the first place.
Falls Creek, Oklahoma: There and back again
The Oklahoma City native and Putnam City Schools graduate attended Olivet Baptist Church growing up. He began his lifelong love affair with the piano after coming home from his sister’s wedding and playing tunes he’d heard at the event without any musical training.
He had been 5 years old then and his parents, recognizing their son’s emerging gifts, thought it might be time for some piano lessons.
At Baptist Village, Huggins soon realized that he had made an indelible impression on many people over the years of his career.
As his performances became a regular part of Baptist Village’s weekly programming in 2020, the pianist learned that many of his Southern Baptist neighbors remembered him from his days performing at Falls Creek.
He said he had no idea that performances from his teens and young adult years would make him unforgettable in the eyes of so many people.
Many of them had been teens or young adults then. A wave of nostalgia seemed to meander through the senior community each time Huggins played some of the Falls Creek musical favorites and other popular classics.
“The second day I was here, I encountered a lady who said she was a missionary wife and she remembered me from Falls Creek. I couldn’t believe how many people knew me from Falls Creek. It’s amazing,” he said.
Huggins and Finley said particular favorites were “Victory in Jesus,” written by Eugene M. Bartlett Sr., father of Gene Bartlett who served as Falls Creek musical director for more than 25 years.
Huggins said Gene Bartlett, who died in 1988, was the director when he was asked to perform at Falls Creek. He said he was 16 when he got a call from Bartlett’s secretary requesting that he come to the Baptist youth encampment to play piano. “Victory in Jesus” was the first selection he played on his first time before the Falls Creek audience.
“It was a great honor and a great joy and I wanted to do it,” he said of his Falls Creek experiences.
Other musical favorites for the Baptist Village crowd included “Saved,” “Oh, How He Loves You and Me” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Another popular selection was “Just As I Am,” a particular favorite played at Billy Graham Crusades. Huggins’ own favorite is “Fairest Lord Jesus.”
Many who enjoyed Huggins’ music sessions were inspired by his determination to overcome physical limitations
Frank, one of the men who sang in Baptist Village’s Singing Saints choir, said the pianist showed great courage.
“Richard has never expressed any discouragement or concern about his condition but has shown he is courageous in continuing to play the piano as he always has. His courageous spirit is an inspiration to us older folks,” he said.
Don, the Singing Saints Choir director, shared similar sentiments.
“Richard has been a blessing to us as we have watched him overcome his limitations and continue to do what he loves and play the piano,” he said. “He has been a remarkable inspiration to see his willingness to continue to try and be the great musician he always has been in spite of his physical limitations.”
Life-affirming melodies for OKC pianist
Finley said he likes to encourage all the senior adults at Baptist Village Communities to use their gifts and talents to serve others as Huggins did and continues to do.
Finley said the first time he asked Huggins to perform for his neighbors, the pianist said he needed practice. So the chaplain set up a few practice sessions for the pianist who showed up determined to refine his sound as best he could. With the enforced isolation of the pandemic, Huggins’ Baptist Village neighbors missed going to church and having ministry volunteers come to visit them. Many of them helped Finley persuade the pianist to play a few selections for them.
“I called him weekly to try to get him to play and he just said my hands are just stiff and rusty,” Finley said. “Different residents went over to get him and bring him over and that made him feel good that he was helping others.”
Findings from a 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that while it was necessary to limit exposure to older adults who were at higher risk of COVID-19-related serious illness and death, the limited in-person social interactions contributed to social isolation and loneliness.
“Not surprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic downturn have taken a toll on the mental health of adults of all ages in the U.S. In July (2020), a majority of U.S. adults 18 and older, 53%, said that worry and stress related to coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health, up from 39% in May, according to a recent KFF tracking poll,” a Kaiser Family Foundation report stated.
“Similarly, among older adults (ages 65 and older), close to half, 46%, said that worry and stress related to coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health, up from 31% in May.”
Huggins said music has the ability to touch people in special ways so he wasn’t surprised that his music sessions became meaningful interludes for his neighbors. .
It wasn’t a shock to him that music, particularly music from their past, may have helped many of his friends beat the doldrums.
He said a quote from an OBU leader has stuck with him all this time and it seemed to fit the current situation.
He said the late Warren M. Angell was director of OBU’s Bison Glee Club and dean of the school’s College of Fine Arts, when he attended the university in Shawnee.
Angell shared his philosophy about music with the young musician.
“He said ‘Richard, remember this: It’s the melody that people love. Always bring out the melody,'” Huggins said.
“They have life experiences that these melodies bring to life. It could be a hymn or something else. It just lifts their hearts somehow. I think it’s wonderful that music can do that.”