Those who knew her only through news stories may recall Anna Clara Gee Blackwell-Hagans for the master’s degrees in piano performance and education she earned at ages 76 and 82, achievements that contributed to her 2012 induction to the Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame.
But this weekend, those who once entered her home to take piano lessons over the course of 51 years, or heard the church choirs she accompanied or directed for 74 years, or met her in the 34 years she worked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, will remember Blackwell-Hagans for something more essential: the uplifting and child-like joy she continued to radiate until her final days.
Blackwell-Hagans, 89, died Jan. 31. Visitation for her will be from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. today at Springfield’s St. John Missionary Baptist Church. Her funeral will be held there at noon Saturday.
Largely confined to her home since an August 2016 stroke, she died there peacefully in the presence of her second husband, Oliver Hagans; daughter Valerie Blackwell-Truitt; and grandson Kyle Truitt.
Born in Springfield on Christmas Eve in 1928, she grew up on June Street as one of five surviving children in the musically rich household of Barrett “Buck” Gee and Letha Cowans Gee. Her sister Jacqueline Gee Brewster described their father, a tap dancer and leader of the family performing act, as the hotter “pepper” of the parental pair, one more drawn to popular music. She described their mother, who sang hymns while working in the family kitchen, as the balancing, flavorful “salt.”
Even in the difficult times of the Depression, the family paid for music lessons, at which young Anna — called Clara by her siblings and Bunny by the father who sat beside the piano as she practiced — excelled. She began playing in church choirs at age 13, graduated from Springfield High School in 1946 at age 16, and married Harold Blackwell, whose acquaintance with her deepened while he walked her to church, three years later.
The two raised four children, worked at Wright-Patterson together (she as a budget analyst) and remained partners for 59 years, until his death in 2008.
Blackwell-Hagans had earned a licensed practical nursing degree in retirement to help care for Blackwell, then turned her attention to earning her master’s in music performance from Wright State University, where she also accompanied the Paul Laurence Dunbar Chorale.
Nominating Blackwell-Hagans for one of many awards she would receive, daughter Nisa Blackwell-Turn wrote: “We are so proud of our mother. She is very kind, generous, loving and determined … a great role model for people young and old who feel they cannot accomplish anything.”
Her mother’s sense that her accomplishments came from above were reflected in the title of Blackwell-Hagans’ autobiography, “He’s All I Need: My Life Story.” During a Valentine’s Day 2014 event to celebrate the release of her book, she underscored that sense with a story.
Following a first stroke, which had affected her entire left side, “I would put my left hand up on the piano praying that God would bless me to play again,” she said. “For months, I was not able to do that. And then one day, I went to the piano because I could feel some tingling. And I knew then that I would play again.”
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Much celebrated in her church community, she was roundly teased by friends and family for her continuing accomplishments in her senior years. At the book release, Deacon James Bacon referred to her as “the Energizer Bunny” and niece Melanie Marshall told the audience: “Every time she sends out an e-mail, we say ‘Lord, what has she done now?’”
Blackwell-Hagans married Hagans on March 28, 2015, after the two met at a rehearsal for a combined churches chorus she was accompanying. In addition to her husband and his family, she is survived by four children, nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two brothers.
She will be buried in Ferncliff Cemetery with her first husband.