For nearly 40 years, the chimes on Harryette Williams’ front door tinkled with the comings and goings of her piano students. And for almost that long, Williams led choirs across Tampa Bay, building a loyal group of singers who followed her from church to church.
The chimes came down from her Largo home in 2019 after a fall and move to a rehab facility. In 2020, just before the pandemic, Williams moved to California to be close to her eldest daughter. On Aug. 13 of that year, she died of Lewy Body Dementia at 84.
Then, something happened that so many families and communities experienced when someone died during the pandemic — nothing. Instead of meetings with a funeral director, the push to get people into town in time and the waves of casseroles and sandwich platters from neighbors, Williams’ family had to wait.
“We thought, well, we’ll wait till spring,” said Williams’ youngest daughter, Bet Williams, who lives in New York City, “and then something always came up.”
Finally, more than two years after Williams’ death, her family and friends plan to gather next weekend in Largo to remember her.
The pandemic disrupted so much, including something a lot of us took for granted. But it’s something Williams understood well. Bringing people together, whether to make music or to grieve, matters.
In the summer of 1981, years after her divorce and just after her girls had gone to college, Williams decided she was moving from Virginia to Florida to be closer to her parents. She was also ready to start over.
Williams was in her mid-40s and had already lived in her native Virginia, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, then New York and Germany with her ex-husband’s role in the Army. She played the organ in churches wherever she lived and often led the music programs for local theater companies.
She loaded up her teak grand piano into a U-Haul and, with the help of her daughters, Tracey and Bet, headed south. In Largo, Williams put the chimes on her front door and opened La Casa de Musica. She put fliers in mailboxes, tacked them onto bulletin boards at libraries, and soon built a successful piano studio.
“Her life really was music and spreading music,” said Bet Williams, now a singer-songwriter who got her first guitar from her piano teacher mom, who realized it might be a better fit. “It’s what she did naturally. That was where she really was alive.”
Be not afraid
Williams’ last student, Jessica Berg, started taking lessons as a child. She remembers her piano teacher’s love of music and how she shared it.
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“She had really become a part of our family,” Berg said.
Williams built families, too, in the choirs she led, from those in her own Roman Catholic faith at churches including St. Justin Martyr in Seminole, St. Jerome’s in Largo, St. Michael the Archangel in Clearwater and St. Catherine of Siena in Clearwater. She also worked at Protestant churches including Church of the Isles in Indian Rocks Beach and Prince of Peace in Largo.
“No matter what our skill level, she always fit the music to our level of expertise so that we always sounded good,” said Marie Crosby, one of Williams’ choir members who followed her from church to church.
A place to land
Next weekend, a celebration of life more than two years in the making will take place in a Largo chapel with a small pump organ.
“It just feels good to finally be able to say that we’ve brought together friends and people to talk about her and just acknowledge the person she was,” said eldest daughter Tracey Williams Sutton, who has made her career on the stage as an actor and director. Like her mother, Williams Sutton is also now teaching piano and has the chimes that once hung in Largo.
“Grieving is a weird thing,” she said. “There’s something probably to be said for having some place to land with your grieving.”
Williams’ daughters will sing a song Bet Williams wrote that their mother loved.
They’ll ask members of Williams’ choirs to sing one of their mom’s favorite hymns.
And after the service, over cookies and tea, they’ll gather and share stories from the life of a woman who made music wherever she went.
Harryette Williams’ celebration of life will take place at 1:30 p.m. March 25 in the chapel at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Largo.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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