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100-year-old trombone player keeps passion for music

Helen Cargo is a trombone player who recently turned 100. She continues to practice with the South Pasadena Community Band each week, as she does here at the South Pasadena City Hall on Thursday, 12/8/16.
Helen Cargo is a trombone player who recently turned 100. She continues to practice with the South Pasadena Community Band each week, as she does here at the South Pasadena City Hall on Thursday, 12/8/16.
Published Jan. 30, 2017

SOUTH PASADENA — Helen Cargo's pink nails strummed against a table as the rest of the South Pasadena Community Band began to warm up their instruments for their weekly practice.

When she was a kid, there was no Spotify or Pandora to listen to music. Phonographs fit for homes were still fairly new, so if you wanted music, you mostly had to create it.

Cargo, who recently turned 100, said music has always been a part of her.

One of the founding members of the band, Cargo sat by the doorway of City Hall in her royal blue cardigan with an empty coffee canister, greeting each player who entered and swapping them a raffle ticket for the $2 that go into the 50-50 lottery; $1 toward the band and $1 toward the pool of cash the winner would take home.

Cargo, who was born in Iowa in 1916 and moved to Pittsburgh at a young age, began playing trombone when she was in high school.

The band conductor had mistaken her for a cheerleader, she said, but while they were talking he mentioned the school had an extra trombone that wasn't being used.

Cargo had taken piano lessons since she was 7 and played organ in the orchestra, she said. She liked the sound of the brassy instrument and the idea she wouldn't have to share it with anyone sounded fun, so she agreed to give the instrument a try. He gave her lessons, and she became the first girl in the band.

People said they could spot her from a distance, she wrote in a brief autobiography to her family, because she was the only one who would jump in puddles.

The next year she joined the city's high school band and an all-girl band in the city.

During her sophomore year of high school, her parents were involved in a serious car accident --- the car toppled three times and her mom developed vision problems. By the time Cargo finished high school, her mother was blind.

"Even if I can't see you anymore, I'll always be able to hear you," Cargo said she remembers her mother telling her.

Her graduation gift to herself was a trombone she bought with $100 she had saved and since then, music has been a part of her life every day.

When she finished high school, she said her real desire was to go to a university to be a concert pianist, but instead she took up a job at a trust company and played for dance bands on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, making $3 a night.

Once a couple danced in front of her, and she told the man not to dance so close, but he ignored her and her trombone slid to seventh position, knocking him to the floor.

She started taking business courses in the evenings and hoped to get transferred to a secretarial job, she said, but then World War II came along and not many women had been trained in the accounting field, so she was needed elsewhere.

"I never even thought about whether I liked what I was doing," she wrote in her autobiography. "I had a job and lots of people did not have one. My first goal was to acquire $1,000 in the bank."

When Cargo's mother died, she stumbled on a fact she hadn't known growing up. She had been adopted from an orphanage where she'd been left by biological parents who had been too impoverished to raise her.

Cargo got married in her 30s, and in the 1960s, the family moved to Pinellas County. Though she continued to play for herself, her primary focus became her family, her son, Bob, said.

Bob, 62, said his mother tried to instill a sense of music into her two sons, packing a lunch for him to eat in the car as she'd drive him during his lunch break during school to band practices, but it didn't really stick the way it did for her.

But when his father died in 1986, Bob said he realized how much a part of Helen's life her music was.

"Out came the trombone again and she just flew with it," he said.

Cargo joined the Pinellas Park Civic Orchestra and St. Pete Community Band. She now plays for St. Pete Masonic Band in addition to the South Pasadena Community Band she helped form.

Jim King, 81, a saxophone player, said he's only come to learn more about Helen recently as the band planned a tribute to her for her 100th birthday at a recent concert --- they played Miss Trombone.

"We love our Helen dearly," King said. "She's that amazing little old lady in the back corner. She's an inspiration to people in their 80s and 90s."

She drove until a few years ago, but now band members give her a ride to practices from her home at The Fountains.

"I love trombone," she said. "It's everything."

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com. Follow @divyadivyadivya.