Happy birthday to you|Lorraine Bledsoe is almost 94 and still playing to the crowd

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 21, 2009

Lorraine Schweizer Bledsoe is a woman who has always known exactly what she wants.

Bledsoe, a Vicksburg native who will be 94 Wednesday, celebrates her birthday every year in an opposite fashion. She throws a party for her friends and buys them presents. “I just thought it up,” she said of the events that have become a local tradition. “I would rather give them a present. I’m a perfectionist — no one ever gives me anything I want.” Bledsoe was joking, and her family and friends at the party made it clear she’s easy to please but enjoys giving to others.

Now a resident of The Olive Branch senior care center in Tallulah, Bledsoe’s been known to buy a case of Absorbine Jr. and hand the little bottles of liniment out to all the residents. The concession to aches and pains is the only one she makes to aging, as she otherwise takes no medications.

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“She’s remarkable,” said Hazel Stampley, activities director at the facility where Bledsoe has lived for several years since moving from The Vicksburg. “On our way over here today she said, ‘They say old age is a blessing, but to me it’s a bore.’ I told her there was nothing boring about her. She’s always ready for a party.”

Bledsoe’s birthday party was a little earlier than usual this year, held at the Magnolia Hill buffet at Riverwalk Casino Sept. 12, the time most convenient for her son, Craig, and his wife, Ruth Ann, who live in Alaska.

Also invited to her party every year are friends whose birthdays are near or the same day as her own — Milton Williams, 86, Bill Curtis, 88, Mary Helen Sultan, 91, and Louise Hudson, 93. Hudson was ill this year and unable to attend, but Bledsoe treated the others, their spouses and friends she has made at the nursing home to lunch in the window-lined restaurant and then gave out picture frames to everyone as her birthday gifts.

“If you want anything, raise your hand and let us know,” she told the group. “Don’t just sit there and want.”

Friends and family say Bledsoe is artistic and creative and blessed with the gift of music. The oldest surviving graduate of the Carr Central High School class of 1933, she got a Bachelor of Music degree from Louisiana State University in 1937 and performed as a concert pianist in venues in and around Atlanta and Washington, D.C., — including the White House — in the years she lived in those cities with her husband, Byron Bledsoe. She also helped found the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

She knew from an early age what she wanted.

At 3, she climbed up on a piano bench and began to play. “I was born a musician,” Bledsoe said. “Music has always been easy for me.” She began taking lessons at 8, her parents paying a neighbor 50 cents a session. By 16, she was staff pianist at Vicksburg’s WQBC radio.

“She still plays for the residents at the nursing home,” Stampley said. Her favorites are classical pieces — works of such composers as Bach, Gershwin, Chopin and Mozart.

Bledsoe will even perform at her own funeral — she’s recorded a tape family members have been instructed to play.

She once gave an impromptu — and unintended — concert for Huey P. Long. While still in high school, she visited her older brother, Charles, at LSU one Saturday with her mother. The two wandered into the music college and Bledsoe couldn’t resist an available piano in a deserted classroom. She was surprised to hear applause when she finished playing.

“It was Huey Long and his bodyguard,” she said. Long told her she played so well he wanted her to go to school there, and arranged for her to have a four-year full scholarship. “The only thing I had to pay was $50 a semester because I was from out of state,” she said.

After graduation from LSU, she “picked off” an eligible Vicksburg engineer. “There’s a saying that there never was a single boy that came to Vicksburg that wasn’t picked off by a Vicksburg girl, and I did,” she said. Byron Bledsoe was one of about 150 civil engineers — “eligible young men,” she said — who came to the city in 1937 to work for Waterways Experiment Station.

During the couple’s 40-year marriage she continued to perform whenever possible. “There were always more places to play than I had time to play,” she said.

These days, Nancy Allen, who considers Bledsoe a second mother, takes her shopping once a month. Characteristically, Bledsoe knows just where she wants to go — Belk, Dillard’s and Walmart are on her list, she said, adding, “The one I like best is Fred’s. You can get nice things there and they aren’t expensive.”

Besides shopping and playing the piano, she reads, enjoys Bingo and likes “anything that gets her out,” said Stampley. “She loves to go.”

And to give her parties.

“She’s entertained us for 10 years, the same crew, every year,” said Josephine Gilliland. “She won’t ever let us bring her a gift.”

In addition to her son and daughter-in-law, Bledsoe has five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her older brother Charles, 96, lives outside St. Louis.


Contact Pamela Hitchins at phitchins@vicksburgpost.com