PROFILE: Piano Man
Whispering Pines resident Warren Beall is a Renaissance man. His home is decorated with African and Asian artifacts from his travels as a pilot, unique furniture he made, and of course, his piano.
Many in the area know Beall for playing those timeless songs of bygone days for the elderly living in many of this area's nursing homes and retirement communities. But there's so much more to the man than his music.
Born in 1916 in Vancouver, British Columbia, to American parents, Beall went all the way through high school in Canada. He then studied chemical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"After five years, I ended up with my degree in the class of 1937. I got out and there were no jobs," says Beall. "With a chemical engineering degree, I'd be lucky to be pumping gas."
However, as an ROTC graduate, Beall was able to get a reserve commission through the Thomason Act.
"You could serve in active duty and be evaluated for further service after a year," Beall explains. "I was assigned to coast artillery in San Francisco, but ultimately I didn't get a permanent commission."
His roommate at the time mentioned that March Field was taking on aviation cadets. "I said, 'wait a minute, I'm coming with you,'" recalls Beall. "There were actually very few pilots at the beginning of World War II. My roommate didn't make the physical exam, but I got in."
He went through aviation training and then returned to his parents in Canada for a visit while awaiting notification from the U.S. Department of Defense. When he received his telegram, he reported for duty at the Ryan School of Aeronautics in San Diego in 1939. There he went to the military's primary flying school for three months, took his basic training at Randolph Field in Texas, and got his wings from Kelly Field in 1940.
Beall was ready to receive a commission, but a kidney stone delayed it.
"I had to find work," says Beall. "I had just been married and was supporting my wife, Janet, as a cadet on $75 a month. Janet was living in a boarding house in San Antonio. So I proposed being a flight instructor in the primary training school back in San Diego."
By then, Beall could see the writing on the wall.
"I started as an instructor, and I was training pilots a mile a minute," he says. "We needed pilots for the war."
When his classes were over, Beall was left wondering what he could do next.
"I always liked Pan-Am, so I contacted them," he says. "I was told to report to its West Coast headquarters on Treasure Island off San Francisco."
He was subject to Pan-Am's tests and was given orders to report to Brownsville, Texas, to start work.
However, as the U.S. was already embroiled in World War II, it wasn't long before Beall was called back into duty in June 1942.
"But I got recalled to serve in the coast artillery, which made no sense," he says.
With the help of Pan-Am executives, Beall finally got his U.S. Air Force commission.
"We were short multi-engine pilots, so we set up a flying school with 90 B-17s," he says. "With my engineering degree, I was put in charge of maintenance. Plus, I was told I'd fly some missions."
In 1943 Beall was sent to Chanute Field in Illinois for its training program. And in 1944, he was sent to Buckingham Air Base in Fort Myers, Fla., to act as flying instructor.
When the war ended in 1945, Beall's service was terminated. He returned to Pan-Am with a great deal of seniority and accepted a post in New York, flying Lockheed Constellations in the airline's around-the-world service.
"I was flying New York to Tokyo," he says. "At 60, pilots have to retire, so in 1976 I flew my last flight to Tokyo and back. Pan-Am always let its pilots take their spouses on their last flights. We got into the hotel in Tokyo, and we were treated like royalty."
Beall notes that his final flight left Tokyo at 6:30 p.m. and arrived in New York at 4:30 a.m. of the same day. He also recalls that during those long flights, the plane would lay over in exotic destinations like Bangkok, Calcutta, New Delhi, and Israel.
"Since we were flying west, the crew would have breakfast at every stop," Beall says with a smile.
In 1970, the Bealls had already moved to Hilton Head, S.C., and stayed there 23 years. They moved to Whispering Pines in 1993.
When his wife began suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Beall moved her into Elmcroft; as the disease progressed, she was moved to Pinehurst Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center. She died just shy of her 85th birthday.
"We miss her," says Beall. "But I'm just so glad it passed so quickly."
At about that time, Beall's daughters Stephanie, Vicki and Sharon approached their dad with a request.
"They knew about my life from my marriage on," he says, "but they didn't know about my early life. So I wrote an autobiography."
While writing, he started to see a pattern forming.
"I had so many near-disasters in life but for the intervention of other people," he says. "I worked as an assistant cook at a YMCA camp making $1.25 a day. I worked there a few months and developed an infection in one of my hands. They couldn't use me anymore, since I was no help with just one hand, so I went back to Seattle."
At the time, Beall was dating a woman whose mother got one look at his hand and arranged for an exam with a surgeon she knew.
"The next day I got a call from a doctor in Seattle asking me to see him," says Beall. "He diagnosed me with a mid-Palmer abscess. In fact, he told me that if I'd seen him one day later, he'd have to amputate my hand. But the surgeon removed the abscess, and it cost 25 dollars, exactly what I'd saved from my job."
Time to Give Back
That, and experiences like those, spurred Beall to examine his life.
"I'd flown between 11 and 12 million miles in my career," he says, "and I figured it was time I gave something back."
That something turned out to be music.
Earlier in life, Beall had spent six years studying classical music under the program of the Toronto Music Conservatory. Although he played the piano and organ at church, he never really learned to play the piano formally.
Then he stumbled onto a piano at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital one day and impulsively began playing.
"My wife always loved music," says Beall. "So when I saw that piano, I just played."
Someone spied him and told him he should see the volunteer coordinator about playing regularly, which he did. He also began playing at Elmcroft, The Carolina House, and Tara Plantation. He has had to give up playing at the hospital because he suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome and his hands become sore when he plays "more sophisticated music there," he says. "But I can still play the other places."
Beall says he hates to read music -- "but if I can hear it, my hands will make the music."
He considers what he does a gift.
"And that's the secret to life," he says. "My music is my gift. I love these dear souls I play for so much, and some of them don't even remember their own names, but they love to hear the music they remember."
Beall recalls one resident at the Carolina House who was catatonic.
"I was playing and they parked her at the left side of the piano. Her niece told me that she'd been a piano instructor and always played 'Listen to the Mockingbird' for them when they were younger," says Beall. "I began playing that, and she reached up and touched my shoulder."
Beall's music "stirs emotions and memories in our residents, which has greatly enriched their lives," says Ginger Adeimy, program director at Heartland Village, Elmcroft's Alzheimer unit. She adds: "His visits are the highlight of their week; they love to sing along, clap to the music and have a great time."
One Heartland resident, who is unable to recognize loved ones or speak clearly, remembers all the lyrics to Beall's music and loves singing along.
"Here is a man who has truly made a difference by bringing back memories that have been lost," Adeimy says. "Music promotes a sense of calm and well-being, which is why we often have soothing music during meals and at nighttime. Like meditation or yoga, music can help maintain our hormonal and emotional balance, even during periods of stress or disease. We also know that music programs help residents be less disruptive, sleep better and become generally more active and cooperative."
'Enriched My Life'
When Beall talks about sharing his gift, he's adamant that he gets more back than he gives.
"Our bodies are just vehicles," he says. "I look at those faces and I see their spirit. It's enriched my life."
When he's finished playing, Beall chats with the residents and presents each woman with a silk flower.
On birthdays he plays "Happy Birthday" and presents honorees with a card and a rose on a heart-shaped wooden base that he made himself.
"But I just give the men a card," he says, joking.
Beall tries to make the music fit the tone.
"Then we'll talk about it," he says. "Do they remember the words? Do they remember the last time they heard that song?"
He usually starts his show with "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and launches into a rousing "Happy Birthday" for any of the residents celebrating.
"I'll play a lot of spiritual songs, because the residents know and love them," says Beall. "Then I'll end with ''Til We Meet Again,' 'Drifting and Dreaming,' 'Moonlight Bay,' 'Good Night, Ladies,' and 'God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again.'"
Although Beall loves getting out to perform, his greatest fear is letting pride get in his way.
"I feel blessed by all of this," he says. "It makes me happy to see happiness light up their faces, and that makes my whole life."
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