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Letters from the Porch: gifts of music

Manolo and Pilar Benero are seen around 1930. (Photo provided by Joe Benero)

To the editor:

Dear friends:

It has been a difficult week. Our hearts go out to friends and family coping with the coronavirus and to the brave medical professionals on the front lines of this crisis.

In an effort to fill up the silence of social distance, many of us are turning to the comfort of music. Some older Saranac Lakers can trace their love of music back to a kind lady who lived in a little brick house up on French Hill.

Pilar Gordon Benero was born in Cuba in the year 1900. Her father was a well-respected physician from a prominent family in Havana. The last thing she must have imagined was that she would end up living out her life way up in the Adirondacks.

This sheet music was a gift from Bela Bartok to the Benero family. (Historic Saranac Lake collection, courtesy of Joe Benero)

At the age of 25, Pilar came to Saranac Lake with her sister Isabel, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Here she fell in love with Manolo Benero, a TB patient from Puerto Rico. Pilar and Manolo married, and unlike thousands of other Spanish-speaking patients who came north for the cure, they settled in Saranac Lake. Manolo worked as the office manager at Troy Laundry and delivered for Meals on Wheels. They raised two boys, Manny and Joe, talented hockey players who graduated from Saranac Lake High School.

An accomplished, professionally trained musician, Pilar taught piano lessons in her home on Virginia Avenue. She became close friends with Ditta Pasztory, pianist and wife of Bela Bartok, the Hungarian composer who came to Saranac Lake for his health in the 1940s. Ditta and Pilar often played piano duets together on the two pianos at the Benero house.

Although I never met Pilar Benero, her story has helped to connect me with people who have become good friends. Some of the best talks I’ve had with Tom Delahant have been about Mrs. Benero. Tom fondly remembers his piano lessons as a kid, and he talks about how caring and intelligent Mrs. Benero was. He describes a memorable trip he took out west when he stopped to visit Pilar in Colorado, where she moved after Manolo died. We can thank Pilar for inspiring Tom to serve as the talented piano accompanist at our school concerts, always with the kindest, most radiant smile. Just as Tom loved Pilar and was inspired by her music, our students adore Tom, and they thrive in the wonderful music program in the Saranac Lake schools.

I called Pilar’s son, Joe, just last week to see how he is doing. He sounded well and is coming up on his 90th birthday. He said to say hello to Saranac Lake, particularly his pal Natalie Leduc, down the road at Will Rogers.

Diane Keating Seidenstein emailed this past week from Florida, saying, “I’ve been playing the piano every day during (this crisis), and of course, Mrs. Benero is by my side. When you speak to Joe next please give him my regards. What a gift — gifts I should say — I received from his mom.”

Did you take piano lessons with Pilar Benero? How is music helping you through this crisis? What teachers made a difference in your life? We would love to hear from you!

Be well,

Amy Catania

Executive director

Historic Saranac Lake

amy@historicsaranaclake.org

Saranac Lake

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