MISS HELEN WAS DELIGHTED when Mama sent me to my piano lesson with a check. When I gave it to her, she’d say, “Thank you! I like to get the green stuff!” Usually this would be followed by a casual conversation in which she would tell me stories about herself and her family. There were two things Miss Helen and I had in common. We were both born and raised in Rome; and we both had a birthday in October. One day she told me that her father worked for the railroad. She explained, in that conversation, that the house where she grew up was on the corner, across from the DeSoto Theatre. Long time Romans will remember where J.L. Todd Auction Company was. That is where the Rhodes house stood years ago. I was delighted to learn these facts about her. Through the years I learned more about her as I continued my piano lessons. The daughter of the late John Henry and Elizabeth Wood Rhodes, she studied music at the Atlanta Conservatory, Brenau College, Shorter University (then College), and Columbia University. I was intrigued to learn that while she was a student at Columbia University, she worked at WQXR, New York’s well known classical radio station.
A story about Miss Helen would hardly be complete without mentioning the Rome Symphony Orchestra. Her involvement with the symphony began in 1948 and continued until 1975. Rehearsals were held every Tuesday night on the Shorter campus. When I was a student at Shorter, I lived on campus and I often saw Miss Helen as she was on her way to those rehearsals. She always had time for me. She’d stop and say, “What’s new with you Pam?” She wanted to hear all about school and always she asked about Stevie (my brother whom she taught).
I THINK ABOUT HOW MUCH MISS HELEN LOVED THOSE CATS. There must be something about the spirit of music teachers which draws animals to them. My daughter is a classically trained violinist. Interestingly, every private teacher she ever had was a real lover of animals. Some had a houseful of dogs. Large barking dogs. Some had cats, though not as many as the sisters. There must have been a dozen of them and they each had a name.
THE SISTERS’ OLD NEIGHBORHOOD. Recently, in my job as a paralegal, I was instructed to deliver some documents to the office of Lee Jennings, CPA. Located in a house at 506 E. Third St., his office is one block from the sisters’ old house. I parked my car in the side parking lot, and made my way down the brick walk to the front door of the house. Lounging on the front porch was a black and white cat and a brown calico. Keenly aware that I was in the sisters’ old neighborhood, right away I thought of Miss Helen and Miss Beechie and their cats. I smiled even as I found myself wondering if these cats could be descended from those cats of long ago.
WHEN I REMEMBER MISS HELEN, I think how culturally enriched Rome was thanks to her devotion to the Rome Symphony Orchestra and the Rome Music Lovers Club. I think about her boundless energy in music education as exemplified by her travelling by Greyhound bus to Trion, every week, where she taught piano and violin. An additional vestige of her passion for music education was her involvement with musical programs in the public schools of Rome and Floyd County.
MISS HELEN’S ECCENTRIC SISTER, MISS BEECHIE. A retired elementary school teacher, she worked with poor children for several years. She believed that God took away her sense of smell because she had to work with children who were very much in need of a bath. Shall we call her unconventional? Indeed. There are many towns, across this great country of ours, who may well have eccentric characters such as she living among them. People who know how to always be who they are but, in the process, are a good deal different than the rest of us.
THE OLDER I GET, THE MORE I REALIZE what an enduring impression Miss Helen made on me. A master musician and an excellent music teacher, she was sincerely interested in all her students. Everything I know about music theory, music history, reading music and playing the piano I owe to her. Mama certainly got her money’s worth from those music lessons.
MISS HELEN DEAN RHODES. Born Oct. 29, 1896, she passed away at her home on Sept. 14, 1976. The Rev. Robert Beeland, then pastor of First Presbyterian Church, officiated at her service and she is buried at Myrtle Hill Cemetery. I will always remember Miss Helen and Miss Beechie, their house and those cats!
Native Roman Pam Walker is a paralegal, a history enthusiast, and an avid reader of Southern fiction. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.