It was on the Kohler & Campbell upright delivered in 1962 to a home in Lincoln, Neb., that sisters Edith and Sheri Matteson learned to play the piano.
The instrument’s next stop was Kalamazoo, Mich., moved there by Sheri in the late 1980s when her own children began taking lessons. In 2001 the piano was shipped to Ballwin so Edith’s children could follow suit.
Today, the piano occupies a place in a north St. Louis dining room — the fulfillment of a grandmother’s lifetime dream to one day own a piano.
The story of the upright’s journey is grounded in the legacy of a shared love of music by a father and son —a bond that perseveres nearly four years after Alex Townsend perished in a car accident in Georgia.
Tom and Jeanne Townsend made a conscious decision to channel their grief into honoring the life of Alex, an artistically gifted 21-year-old killed when his car struck a tree in Savannah in 2010.
A little over a year later the foundation bearing the Savannah College of Art and Design student’s nickname, A-Town, put established and fledgling musicians on the same stage for the inaugural “A-Town Get Down.” Held annually in Savannah, the event will expand to St. Louis in 2014.
The popularity of the music festival notwithstanding, Tom Townsend harbored a desire to further honor Alex.
And Townsend, an advertising executive in St. Louis, knew exactly how he wanted to do it: Place unwanted uprights, spinets and consoles in homes of those who might not otherwise afford a piano.
“There are pianos in houses where the people don’t use them and kids in houses without a piano who would love one,” said Townsend, a Clayton resident who performs as a keyboardist with several local combos.
By 2012, Townsend had enlisted two key allies in the Pianos for People project: Joe Jackson, the owner of Jackson Pianos, and Pat Eastman, a longtime adjunct Webster University music professor and Alex Townsend’s piano teacher for 10 years.
Eastman can’t imagine a more fitting tribute to Alex than an instrument that “brings the whole family together, it creates a community that maybe wasn’t there before.”
The family of a bartender at a Dutchtown club was Pianos for People’s first beneficiary.
The woman had apologized profusely to Townsend for her children’s banging on an unattended keyboard while his band took a break during a 2012 performance.
“Here’s my chance,” Townsend thought to himself an instant before he offered to deliver a free piano to the shocked woman’s home.
Pianos for People delivered the instrument, a Yamaha upright purchased for $300 from a thrift shop, shortly before last Thanksgiving.
The delivery set in motion a process the organization has adhered to ever since.
Each instrument is inspected to ensure the hammers, sound board, keys and other components are viable. Pianos for People accepts smaller keyboards — spinets, consoles and studio uprights – but not large uprights, baby grand or grand pianos.
Instruments passing muster are then transported to the Jackson Pianos showroom and workshop in the Central West End for refurbishment by the company’s in-house technicians.
The firm performs the work at cost and, often, for free.
“It’s not just about delivering pianos,” Jackson explained. “It’s about what St. Louisans can do to connect with other St. Louisans that excel in music. Pianos for People keeps that moving forward.”
As the technicians retrofit the piano, Townsend and his staff are reviewing applicants, searching for the ideal match between instrument and beneficiary.
The program purchased the initial batch of distributed pianos at a minimal cost. Today, all the keyboards are donated, with the majority coming from homes in west St. Louis County. Nearly two dozen families and churches have received pianos.
The instrument delivered to the home of Jean Williamson earlier this month was No. 21.
A devotee of jazz and ragtime, the retired city employee has longed to learn the piano since childhood.
The opportunity at last presented itself this year when her neighborhood YMCA hired an instructor to teach on a piano a benefactor donated to the branch.
In September, at the age of 75, Williamson took her first lesson.
It didn’t take long for Williamson to notice that the melodic sounds produced on the YMCA’s piano lost something when she practiced at home on an electronic keyboard.
With that in mind, Williamson submitted an application to Pianos for People.
At nearly the same time, Edith Matteson and her husband were wondering what to do about a Kohler & Campbell upright that basically had become a piece of furniture since their children left for college.
“The piano was just sitting there, and who knows if anyone in the family would want it?” said Matteson. “It made sense to sell it or give it to someone who could really use it. The important thing was that it make someone happy.”
A Google search brought Pianos for People to Matteson’s attention. Thus began the path of the Kohler & Campbell from Ballwin to north St. Louis.
As the process of preparing Matteson’s upright for a new home unfolded, Pianos for People was meanwhile moving in new directions.
At Townsend’s urging, the program started offering higher-end pianos to financially strapped professional musicians. And the organization began transforming a Cherokee Street storefront into a showroom and studio for Eastman to teach Pianos for People recipients as well as neighborhood children and adults.
To Eastman, the free pianos now gracing St. Louis area homes are transcendent.
“The gift of a piano is something (the beneficiaries) couldn’t imagine they could ever have,” she said. “And if a piano in their home can come true, then maybe they can imagine other parts of their lives coming true as well. It’s a life changing event with so many good ramifications that you can’t even think of them all.”
The discussion could well begin with Williamson.
“Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful” she exclaimed, eyes glistening as she laid eyes on the Kohler & Campbell for the first time.
Moments later, from the keyboard upon which two generations of the Matteson family learned scales and chords, arpeggios and cadences, Williamson filled her home with the strains of “When the Saints Come Marching In.”
“Do you know how happy I am?” the pianist asked, basking in a lifelong wish granted her.