CARTHAGE, Mo. —
Robert Harris first sat in front of the piano at First United Methodist Church in 1939.
These days, the 84-year-old plays less frequently because of his declining health. But more than 70 years after his debut as a youngster of 10 or 11 years old, the piano bench is still his.
“His music has been his life,” the Rev. James Lee, the church’s pastor and Harris’ guardian, said on Friday.
A musical tribute in Harris’ honor will be presented to the public on Sunday. The featured artist will be Harris’ former student Tommy Hilton, now a student at the Conservatory of Music in Kansas City, who will perform works by Chopin, Brahms, Gershwin and Cole Porter.
“We just want to do this so he knows how much he’s loved and appreciated, not just by the church, but by the community and the area,” Lee said.
After learning to play the piano from his mother as a young child, Harris received degrees from Kansas State Teachers College, now Pittsburg State University, and later served in the U.S. Army. He also studied for seven years at the Aspen (Colo.) Music School under Juilliard educator Rosina Lhevinne. He was a member of the faculty at the former College of Our Lady of the Ozarks in Carthage and of Missouri Southern State University until his retirement in 1995.
Harris, who keeps two Steinway pianos in his living room, is considered locally to be a classical pianist, Lee said. In addition to serving as the church’s pianist and organist for decades, Harris has also played for hundreds of weddings and funerals and has loaned his talents to other churches, Lee said.
“He has given his life to music and the advancement of music and the study of it, and really that’s what he has lived for,” he said. “He has literally touched thousands of lives through his music lessons (and) through his time at the university.”
Lee said Harris, who has no surviving relatives, has been particularly supportive and encouraging of young people. A long-time piano teacher, Harris often hired teens to help him with his housework and the organization of his piano music, Lee said.
Harris has also been devoted to his church, which has become his family, Lee said. Harris even volunteered part of his salary once to another church staff member who was facing financial difficulties, he said.
“Every time the church needed him, he was there,” he said.
If you go
A musical tribute to Bob Harris will be presented at 3 p.m. Sunday at First United Methodist Church, 617 S. Main St. in Carthage. The public is invited to attend.