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Lena Ovelmen's legacy lives on as Gulfside Elementary student inherits her piano

It was a clear spring day and Dora Vayette was driving the scenic coastline on Strauber Memorial Highway, thinking about an old friend and the Kimball upright piano she used to play.

Lena Ovelmen, a woman who favored bright red lipstick, heavy perfume and penny ante poker, used to tickle the ivories as often as she could on her upright piano, as well as the organ she bought on a lark one day after giving an impromptu performance that had wowed a burgeoning crowd at Gulf View Square mall.

"She played in the kitchen band at the clubhouse in Holiday Lake Estates," Vayette said. "New York, New York was one of her favorites, but I heard a lot of music over the years. She could play by ear. She would just hear something on the radio and she'd play it. She could play anything you wanted her to play. You'd just hum it and she'd play it."

But in the last few years, Ovelmen's age and her ailing health caught up with her. She played less and less. Then not at all.

"She was hanging on till she reached 100," Vayette said. "She always said she wanted to live to be 100 to get her (birthday) card from the president. After it came, she went downhill."

Since Ovelmen's death in December, Vayette has been seeing to her friend's last requests.

As executor of the estate, Vayette, 67, drove halfway across the state to deliver an inheritance check to Ovelmen's niece and contacted a stepson in California about some money that was coming his way. She found a home for the organ, giving that to a friend who seemed to need a new outlet in his life.

Finding a place for the piano was all that remained.

But Ovelmen hadn't been specific about what should be done with the Kimball upright piano. The two had discussed selling it. That would be okay, Ovelmen said, but she really just had one wish for the piano.

"She just said, 'I hope someday when you get rid of my piano that someone plays it and enjoys it like I did,' " Vayette recalled.

And that's what Vayette was thinking about during her drive along the gulf when she caught sight of an elementary school and, on a whim, decided to pull in.

"I saw someone in the parking lot and asked if they had a music program there," Vayette said. They did. So Vayette went to the front office at Gulfside Elementary School and told the woman at the counter what she had in mind. Before long she was exchanging introductions with the school principal, Chris Clayton.

"Then I told him, 'I want to donate a piano to your music class,' " she said. "I told him, 'It's in mint condition. Beautiful wood finish. All tuned.' His eyes, well, they just lit up."

• • •

Lisa O'Keefe, the music teacher at Gulfside Elementary, was delighted with the surprise visit, and the offer that came with it. Donating a piano was a very nice gesture. But O'Keefe was quite happy with her own Yamaha piano and didn't need another.

Vayette asked if there was perhaps a gifted student at the school who was in need of a piano.

Right about then Brittany Weiser, 11, popped into the classroom just to say "hi," and Vayette had her answer.

As it turns out, O'Keefe had been helping John Weiser search for a piano for his daughter, Brittany, a gifted music student whose potential seemed limited only by a lack of a piano to practice on at home.

The fifth-grader, who splits her time between her mom's home in Holiday and her dad's home in Largo, had always been a melodic kind of kid. She was a star in the school chorus and had dabbled on her grandmother's piano since she was about 4. She learned a little here and there from her grandmother, Elaine Weiser, and had been plugging away at home on an electric keyboard she got for Christmas.

For the last month, Brittany had been taking formal lessons after school with O'Keefe and was progressing by leaps and bounds.

"She's a joy to teach — the kind of kid you have to practically kick out of the room because it's time for another student," said O'Keefe. "But that's how you want them to be."

And just like Ovelmen, Brittany has a knack for playing by ear.

• • •

Vayette knew right away that she had found the perfect fit.

"That little girl's eyes lit up and she got so excited when her teacher told her I was going to give her the piano," she said. "She called her dad and he was in shock. And the teacher, she's about ready to cry and I'm thinking, 'Oh, what did I do? I'm feeling good about donating that piano.' "

A few days later, John Weiser drove from Largo to Holiday to pick up the piano.

"Honestly, I was crying," Weiser said. "I wanted to buy a piano, but I'm in construction, and money's real tight right now. So I was in tears. It was happy tears — it wasn't like sad tears. It just touched me that someone would be so generous. She didn't know Brittany. She didn't know me. It was just like God sent her into that school for a reason."

At their small, tidy home in Largo, the fish tank has been moved from the living room to Weiser's bedroom to make room for Brittany's piano, which is now adorned with pictures of her growth throughout the years.

Brittany says she practices for at least a half-hour a day and is now working out the parts to Beethoven's Fur Elise.

"I used to just watch TV," Brittany said. "Now I just play the piano. I love it. Sometime I just sit down and hit a note and then another and it comes out pretty and it makes a song."

"It sounds good," said her dad. "It sounds real good."

Lena Ovelmen's legacy lives on as Gulfside Elementary student inherits her piano 04/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 16, 2009 9:14pm]
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