ST. PETERSBURG — Aileen Chapman was teaching music at 10 Pinellas County elementary schools in the early 1950s when a red-headed boy who played violin approached her after rehearsal.
The school year was about over and the boy fretted that his violin-playing days were, too. The middle school he was to attend the next year did not offer violin instruction. Most middle schools didn't.
Charlie wondered if she could help.
It took a few years to find a solution. In 1958, with the help of another teacher and the School Board, Mrs. Chapman co-founded the Pinellas Youth Symphony.
Today the symphony has about 150 students playing in four orchestras. PYS alumni currently play with the Florida Orchestra, the San Francisco Opera, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and the Yucatan Symphony Orchestra.
Mrs. Chapman, the co-founder of what has become a major musical artery in Pinellas County, died early Wednesday in the nursing home of Westminster Suncoast, a retirement community. She was 104.
"The majority of kids who have gone on to have careers in music and have played professionally went through the youth symphony," said Carolyn Wahl, a longtime member of the Florida Orchestra.
Aileen Bliss was born Jan. 20, 1908, in Geneva, Ind., the daughter of two musicians. An early, cherished memory: the day celebrating World War I soldiers rolled through the dirt roads of her town. One of them tossed her a little American flag, which she kept.
She left college at 18 and joined the Chautauqua, a self-education movement with lectures and musical and theatrical performances. She spent seven years on the road with Chautauquas and the Lyceum, a similar show based in Chicago. She kept scrapbooks of those years and all that followed, including passports and old brochures, financial records and love letters to Rollo "Jack" Chapman, a handyman she married in 1933.
They moved to Jacksonville in the early 1940s, selling fly swatters by the roadside to pay for gas. Mrs. Chapman graduated from the Jacksonville College of Music. She bought a Cavalli violin that was about 75 years older than she was.
They moved to St. Petersburg in 1951, and she taught with Pinellas County schools. That's where she met Charlie, whose dilemma changed her life.
"He said, 'Now when I go to junior high, they're not going to have an orchestra for me to play in,' " Mrs. Chapman recalled in a 2006 interview. "That's what planted the seed in my mind. Why don't we start an orchestra countywide?"
With the School Board's permission, Mrs. Chapman and fellow teacher Charlotte Cooper taught strings after school on their own dime.
The result, she said, was "strings by the hundreds."
The Pinellas Youth Symphony held its first concert April 2, 1959, in Williams Park. The orchestra got some help when adult symphony conductors volunteered for stretches of time. She retired in 1968. Jack Chapman died five years later.
Mrs. Chapman never seemed to look back, filling her time with one activity or another. She served as a statewide officer with the Florida Retired Educators Association, wrote a column in the Times for seniors about driving, and fulfilled power-of-attorney duties for neighbors younger than she was. She wound down with a glass of bourbon, straight up. She played violin with the Pinellas Park Civic Orchestra and saxophone for the Second Time Arounders marching band into her late 90s. For her 95th birthday, she said, "I partied for a week."
But Mrs. Chapman was not on hand to accept the bouquet of flowers the youth symphony planned to give her at Ruth Eckerd Hall for its 50th anniversary concert in 2008. She was in the hospital. In the years since, she weakened.
"She was sharp as a tack, but her body wouldn't keep up with her mind," said Bill Findeison, a longtime friend and co-founder of the Second Time Arounders. Since being transferred to Westminster's nursing home in June, Mrs. Chapman began to wrestle with yet another challenge: how to die.
Starting July 17, she refused food at the nursing home. Aides brought her meals three times a day, only to remove them untouched. She sipped water and remained alert.
After several weeks Mrs. Chapman briefly regained interest in food, asking for a bowl of soup and then some vanilla ice cream. But then she ate less and less. Then she mostly slept.
She died at 4:35 a.m. Wednesday. Friends and colleagues found it fitting.
"Talk about a force of personality," said Pinellas Youth Symphony executive director Jane Hine. "She put her foot down and said, 'That's it.' "
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.