95 years on the keys and counting

Tomi Gallagher plays piano in the great room at the Saranac Village at Will Rogers on Wednesday while her daughter Beth turns the pages. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

SARANAC LAKE — Tomi Gallagher ran her fingers over the keys of a baby grand piano inside the great room of the Saranac Village at Will Rogers retirement community. The light and cheery notes of her “warm-up song” rang out, slow, then fast and rich with atmosphere — the result of 95 years of musical love.

Gallagher, 99, started playing piano when she was 4 years old.

“It warms the cockles of my heart!” Gallagher declared. “That’s a Scottish saying.”

She punctuates her stories and jokes with musical bumpers on the keys, using the piano as another form of communication to drive home a punchline or a statement.

She still has her first baby grand piano — which she refers to as “Lady” — in her room at Will Rogers.

Tomi Gallagher points and winks at the camera after playing a jaunty tune on the piano in the great room at the Saranac Village at Will Rogers on Wednesday. Gallagher, 99, a resident of Will Rogers, has been playing piano for 95 years and said she learned from her parents, musicians and vaudevillians, how to love music and how to be loose and free. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

“It’s been part of my life,” Gallagher said.

On Wednesday, she accompanied the Will Rogers Singers in their monthly concert, backing them up on songs by Nat King Cole, Dean Martin and John Denver.

A couple of minutes later, when Will Rogers employees began a round of “Happy Birthday” to celebrate all of the residents’ birthdays for the month of April, Gallagher jumped on the melody and played along.

Gallagher will have her birthday in September, when she’ll turn 100.

“It’s only a number,” she said. “And I’m only a kid.”

Tomi Gallagher plays piano in the great room at the Saranac Village at Will Rogers on Wednesday. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

Gallagher said when she and her husband Bill moved to Saranac Lake to teach in the early 1950s, there wasn’t much music and she had a bit of a “culture shock.” Saranac Lake had been a tuberculosis town for years, and Will Rogers had been a hospital for actors and artists suffering from the disease. But after a cure was discovered in the late 1940s, she said the town didn’t have much music anymore.

She performed at restaurants, played concerts in people’s homes and taught music in the schools, becoming a driving force for music in town.

Her daughter Felista said Gallagher was part of a group of women who invited musicians to the area, housing and feeding them when they came to perform.

“You were a seed-planter, Mom,” her daughter, Felista, said.

Gallagher’s daughter Beth said things have come a long way and now there’s a “phenomenal” music program in the school and music all around.

Gallagher said she’s thrilled with Saranac Lake’s current performing arts community.

Her parents were musicians and vaudevillians, who she describes as “loose … free people.” They made being odd and different part of their profession.

She lived in Albany and in New York City, when she lived at the famous Barbizon hotel for women, where she was surrounded by performers and had a roommate who was a showgirl in the “Follies.”

She studied at The Juilliard School under a strict Russian instructor.

“I thought he was nuts,” Gallagher said.

But she still remembers what he always told her: “Never waste my time or yours.”

She’s wasted very little time. She and her husband Bill, which whom she shared six decades of love, raised seven children. They volunteered at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid. She taught music in Saranac Lake elementary schools and mentored students in a program Bill started; volunteered with Historic Saranac Lake and the Hospital Auxiliary; and worked as a pianist for Pendragon Theatre, local churches and the Lake Placid Center for the Arts.

Felista also said her mother helped bring the Saranac Lake Central School District Title IX funds to allow girls to participate in school sports more fully.

Gallagher was the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Queen in 2006.

Gallagher had advice for anyone interested in learning an instrument: “Find a teacher and do it. It can be a life saver. It will change your life.”

She also has advice for artists in general.

“If you find something different that you do … some little niche that makes ‘you’ … find something that makes you different and they’ll remember you,” Gallagher said.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today