For nearly 40 years, Harriet Williams’ front door bells rang with the comings and goings of her piano students. And for almost as long, Williams has directed choirs around Tampa Bay, building a loyal group of singers who follow her from church to church.
Bells moved out of her Largo home in 2019 after a fall and moved into a rehabilitation center. In 2020, just before the pandemic, Williams moved to California to be near her eldest daughter. On August 13 of that year, she died of Lewy body dementia at the age of 84.
Then something happened that so many families and communities experienced when someone died during the pandemic – nothing. Instead of meetings with a funeral director, efforts to get people into town on time, and waves of casseroles and sandwiches from neighbors, the Williams family had to wait.
“We thought we’d wait until spring,” said Williams’ youngest daughter, Beth Williams, who lives in New York, “and then something always came up.”
Finally, more than two years after Williams’ death, her family and friends plan to gather next weekend in Largo to honor her.
The pandemic has disrupted so much, including something many of us took for granted. But it’s something Williams understands well. Bringing people together, whether to make music or to grieve, matters.
In the summer of 1981, years after her divorce and just after her girls had gone off to college, Williams decided she was moving from Virginia to Florida to be closer to her parents. She was also ready to start over.
Williams was in her mid-40s and had already lived in her native Virginia, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, then New York and Germany with her ex-husband in the military. She plays the organ in churches wherever she lives and often directs musical programs for local theater companies.
She loaded her teak grand piano into a U-Haul and, with the help of her daughters, Tracy and Beth, headed south. In Largoto, Williams placed the bells on his front door and opened La Casa de Musica. She puts flyers in mailboxes, sticks them on bulletin boards in libraries, and soon builds a successful piano studio.
“Her life was really about music and spreading music,” said Beth Williams, now a singer-songwriter who got her first guitar from her piano teacher mother, who realized it might be a better fit. “That’s what she did naturally. This was where she was truly alive.
Do not be afraid
Williams’ latest student, Jessica Berg, started taking lessons as a child. She remembers her piano teacher’s love of music and how she shared it.
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“She had really become part of our family,” Berg said.
Williams also built families in the choirs she led from those in her own Roman Catholic faith at churches including St. Justin Martyr in Seminole, St. Jerome in Largo, St. Michael the Archangel in Clearwater and St. Catherine of Siena in Clearwater. She also worked at Protestant churches, including the Church of the Islands in Indian Rocks Beach and Prince of Peace in Largo.
“No matter what our skill level was, she always adjusted the music to our level of experience so we always sounded good,” said Marie Crosby, one of Williams’ choir members who followed her from church to church.
A celebration of life, more than two years in the making, will be held next weekend at Largoto Chapel with a small pump organ.
“It just feels good to finally be able to say that we got friends and people together to talk about her and just acknowledge the person that she was,” said eldest daughter Tracy Williams Sutton, who has made a career of the stage as an actor and director. Like her mother, Williams Sutton also teaches piano and owns the bells that once hung on the Largo.
“Grief is a strange thing,” she said. “There’s probably something to be said for having a place to land your grief.”
The Williams daughters will sing a song written by Bette Williams that their mother loved.
They will ask members of the Williams choirs to sing one of their mother’s favorite hymns.
And after the service, over cookies and tea, they will gather and share stories from the life of a woman who makes music wherever she goes.
A celebration of Harriet Williams’ life will be held at 1:30 p.m. on March 25 in the chapel of St. Jerome in Largo.
Poynter News Researcher Karin Baird contributed to this story.
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