“About 10 or 12 years ago, we were playing at a high-rise assisted-living condo. Three ladies were sitting in the front row and one of them was singing along to every song,” he says. “Later a nurse came up to me and said, ‘You know, that woman has Alzheimer’s [Disease] and doesn’t know her name or her family.’ But she knew all the songs. That showed me how healing music is to the mind and I never forgot it.”
Those who have listened to the Senior Citizen’s Harmonica Club performances for the last 20 years won’t soon forget Leo Perry either. He spent over 10,000 hours as director of the club and is the only charter member left. The club was formed in 1994 after 92-year-old Eric Carlson ran an ad in the Gabber wanting to give harmonica lessons at the Senior Center. Between nearly 30 people showed up the first day, and the Senior Citizen’s Harmonica Club was born. At its peak, the club had 64 members. Today, the club has 36 members with an average age of 85.
“For some people, creativity is developed later in life,” says Perry, “or earlier creative outlets are renewed after retirement.”
Under Perry’s direction, the club has played the national anthem twice before major league baseball games at Tropicana Field and at various concert venues, churches and nursing homes. They have donated to All Children’s Hospital, the Gulfport Senior Center and other charities. They also sent 800 harmonicas to troops overseas.
Last month Perry was honored for his years of service to the club in front of a packed house of fans at the Catherine Hickman Theater during the club’s 895th performance – Perry’s last as director of the group.
Asked what he will do now with all his free time, again, Perry doesn’t hesitate. “Practice the harmonica,” he says. “I never have time to play now.”