A Lifetime of Music

Helen 1

Helen Cargo, 98, at her apartment in South Pasadena with a painting she said her father Archie Jillson did when he was 16. “It’s my treasure,” she said.

Ever since Helen Cargo can remember, music has been part of her life. And at the age of 98 she sees no reason to stop playing.

Cargo, of South Pasadena, still plays with two area bands: the South Pasadena Community Band and the Masonic Band in St. Petersburg. She practices once a week with each. Her instrument? The trombone.

Cargo, who has twinkling blue eyes and an easy, girlish smile, also plays the accordion and piano. Over the years she has played in bands big and small, including trios that entertained people at hotels, country clubs and private homes. During World War II, with all the men off at war, she played in all-girl bands.

John Hoover, conductor of the South Pasadena Community Band, said one would be hard pressed to find another woman Cargo’s age anywhere playing the trombone. He noted that the trombone is a large instrument that requires a lot of movement of the arms.

Helen Cargo, 98, and her trombone at a recent performance of the South Pasadena Community Band in Treasure Island.

Helen Cargo, 98, and her trombone at a recent performance of the South Pasadena Community Band in Treasure Island.

“I’m amazed at this woman, to tell the truth,” he said.

Cargo was born in Iowa City, and orphaned at an early age. She was adopted by parents who took her to Pittsburg. One of her earliest memories was of starting piano lessons at around age 7. It came to her naturally. “I loved it,” she said.

Through serendipity, she learned the trombone in high school. The music teacher needed a trombone player for the band and happened to have an instrument one no one was using. “He said if he could find it, would I learn to play it. I said definitely.”

As an adult she took accordion lessons and won an accordion in a competition sponsored by the Wurlitzer company.

Although she had to go to work right after graduation, she took college classes at night and got a degree in business. Over the years she worked in the trust department of a bank and as an accountant for a coal company. She married at the age of 38 and had two sons. Ironically, neither her children nor her husband played an instrument.

Cargo attributes much of her success in life to her parents, who she said did everything they could to help develop her as a musician and a person.

“I had very good parents. They gave me good values,” she said. “They put my interests first.”

She said she doesn’t feel any different now that she’s 98 than she did when she was younger. “I’ve had very good health all my life and I’m most grateful for that,” Cargo said.

“I feel very good about my whole life,” she added. “Every life has a few snags in it, but on the whole, everybody’s been good to me – good and helpful.”

As the role of music in her life, she says: “It’s everything. It’s part of me.”


Don't be shy. Tell us what you think.