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Resilient Blackwell models ‘audacity of joy’

Barak Obama wrote of the audacity of hope.

A week ago Saturday, after years of trying to put the idea together, something clicked, and a parallel expression came to my mind.

The setting was the Family Life Center of Springfield’s St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church. The occasion was a dedication of the book “He’s All I Need: My Life Story.”

It’s the latest of a seemingly unending list of personal accomplishments so long that more than one speaker teased 85-year-old Anna Gee Blackwell about it.

“Every time she sends out an email, we say, ‘Lord, what has she done now?’ ” said niece Melanie Marshall.

Deacon James Bacon politely inquired whether Blackwell had built a new wing on to her home yet for all the accolades she has collected.

His nickname for her is the “Energizer Bunny,” because of the way she keeps on going and going and going.

She overcame cancer at age 20, raised four children while working at Wright-Patterson Air Force base, was a music director of multiple choirs and taught generations of piano students. She then got a bachelor’s degree at age 40, later a nursing degree so she could help her ailing late husband, then a master’s degree in piano performance at 76 from Wright State University and an online master’s in education three years ago at the age of 82.

And as I drove to the church for the occasion, I wondered whether I was beginning to tire of learning about the achievements of this tireless woman.

Early in the program, Mildred Archie began to help my attitude to shift and my thoughts come together by citing a famous quote: “A vision without a task is a dream,” she said. “A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision and a task is the hope of the world.”

While some call Blackwell “Anna” and longtime friends call her “Clara,” a middle name used in childhood, Archie said she calls her “Miss Thing” because Blackwell has those things in the right combination.

At her turn at the lectern, it took only moments for Blackwell to remind me why I’d come to see her yet again.

Because one of her strengths is and always has been the innocence and purity of her joy. Above a handsome pink suit, her face beamed from beneath gray bangs, outshining the sequined bling of her scarf.

When later I opened her book and saw a picture of Blackwell at age 6, I noticed the brightness in her has not been dimmed by life — despite the challenges that have come. And midway through her 80s, she’s just as darling and cute.

She spoke of what I take to be the roots of that aspect of her, describing how her religious, spiritual- and hymn-singing mother and tap dancing, performing and show-stealing father taught her and her brothers and sisters “to live our life full of love, patience, empathy and compassion for those around us.”

But after paying them proper tribute, it was as she told a story about coming back from her third stroke that the thought forming in my mind for so many years finally took shape.

“This whole left side was effected,” she said, something that was keeping her from being able to play the instrument she had spent a lifetime with — the piano.

In the teaching studio of her then Yellow Springs home, “I would put my left hand up there on the piano praying that God would bless me to play again. For months, months, I was not able to do that.

“And one day, I went to the piano, because I could feel some tingling. And I knew then that I would play again.”

The joy that filled her that moment took her the rest of the way.

The words then came to me: The tenacity of joy.

“She always bounces back,” a former piano student said. “You see many elderly people who get sick and it’s the end of them. But Mrs. Blackwell has bounced back, and she has bounced back 100 percent.”

The tenacity of that joy is not just a force that helps Anna Clara Gee Blackwell overcome her physical ills. It’s a force involved in helping a people overcome social ills.

All that seemed even clearer to me when Brother Doug Toles stood up in his bold mustard yellow suit, grabbed a microphone and led the singing of “We’ve come to magnify the Lord.”

Until then, I had considered gospel music only an energetic, uplifting form of music that somehow made the drummer in me clap on the offbeat like I was scratching an itch and granted me permission to put on an ear-to-ear smile while sitting in a pew.

But on Saturday, I noticed its insistent repetition of a message that won’t be denied and the way its tenacious joy creates a momentum that propels it forward, whatever personal or social ill comes its way.

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