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Great grandma going strong on marimba

BRADENTON — Betty Dial paused, mallets in hand, and the marimba awaited her familiar touch.

Soon a melody with a hint of the Carribean brightened the darkened sanctuary at Westside Christian Church.

“It’s been an outlet my whole life,” Dial said. “People say how much they enjoy listening. That keeps me going.”

The 85-year-old great grandmother and her 73-year-old marimba.

“The two of them become one when she’s playing,” said church pianist Inez Troutman.

They’ve been one a long, long time.

Dial’s father, a rubber plant foreman in Barberton, Ohio, wanted each of this three daughters to play an instrument.

The older two played piano, so that was out.

“I didn’t like it,” Dial said. “I thought maybe saxophone, but he didn’t like that.”

A harp? Too expensive.

Then Dial heard a marimba player in Phil Spitalney’s All-Girl Orchestra, a nationwide sensation in the 1930s.

“The tone was so mellow I loved it,” she said. “I got the marimba the following Christmas.”

Dial was 12, but quickly learned the large wooden percussion instrument that resembles a xylophone.

She played it in high school, at churches, and other functions, even trying out for Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour.

“I didn’t make it, but it was fun,” Dial said.

But it wasn’t fun transporting the marimba, a cumbersome instrument.

“My first husband, Robert (Edwards, who died in 1962), would say, ‘Why didn’t you play a flute?” she kidded.

Dial’s family is glad she didn’t.

Carla Edwards remembers what a treat it was to visit her mother-in-law with children in tow.

“It was always, ‘Gramma! Gramma! You’ve got to play ‘March of the Wooden Soldiers!’” Edwards said. “She’d be up and down the keyboard with four mallets. She was phenomenal.”

Still is.

“I can’t even hum a note and get it right,” said church member Willard Jackson. “She can still keep a beat.”

The marimba was also a perfect release for Dial when she got a degree and taught second grade for 21 years.

“If I was exasperated, I’d pound the heck out of it,” she said. “If I was feeling mellow, I’d play something mellow.”

Now?

“Just being able to participate, thinking I’m doing some good, it’s been fulfilling,” Dial said.

Vin Mannix, columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at the Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, Fla. 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com.

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