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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016 12:04 am

The music man

SILVESTER WALTON, JR. Feb. 22, 1946-Oct. 11, 2016



Praise him with the sound of the trumpet, praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with the timbrel and dance, praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals, praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
                           –Psalm 150

Silvester Walton, Jr. did not go gentle into that good night. He sang.

“I walked in, and his eyes lit up,” recalls Donna Jefferson, principal at Dubois Elementary School, who visited Walton shortly before he died. He was in hospice care, she says, but still he had strength. “I had some friends with me. When we started singing, he immediately joined in and started singing every single song. I was amazed. He looked good, and I thought ‘Somebody’s wrong – he’s going to be here for awhile.’”

Walton proved too tired to sing during a subsequent visit, and no wonder. The last decade or so of life was tough. Diabetes forced the amputation of one leg, then the other. A kidney transplant lasted just one week before his body rejected the donated organ, and so he underwent dialysis for 14 years. He spent his final four months in a nursing home. He never complained.

“The people at the nursing home loved him – I’m talking about both the patients and the staff,” recalls his widow, Jerry. “They would say ‘Where’s the man with the smile?’ He always kept people laughing and their spirits up.”

He also kept them entertained.

Union Baptist Church, where Walton was the pianist for 40 years, wasn’t big enough to contain his talent. He also performed at Capital City Church of God, where he both played piano and led the choir. When it came to music, denominations meant little to Walton, who created music for Catholic youth groups in Springfield and also organized community choirs. “Amazing Grace” was a particular favorite, which he could sing at any tempo, slow or fast, Jefferson says.

Jefferson heard about Walton 10 years before meeting him. A community theater group needed help planning music for a play, she recalls.

“Someone said, ‘Why not ask Silvester?’” Jefferson says. “I said ‘Who’s Silvester?’ I didn’t know him. People looked at me like I was an alien, like I was from someplace else.”

Jefferson says she didn’t realize that she had a talent for singing until she met Walton after he started performing music at Capital City Church of God, where she attends services. Before long, she was a regular visitor to his home, where he demanded her best as they rehearsed songs, and she soon started getting invitations to perform at weddings and funerals.

“He would not accept any mediocrity,” Jefferson said.

He had a gift for knowing just what to play as sermons began and ended, recalled the Rev. U. Pete Williams, a former Union Baptist Church pastor, during a service for Walton held one week after his death. And if singers were less than perfect, Walton accommodated, trying various keys until he found one that worked.

“And you would never know that anyone was off key – that’s some kind of musician,” said Williams, who now presides at Greater Shiloh Baptist Church in Danville. “He was any pastor’s dream.”

The Rev. T. Ray McJunkins, current pastor at Union Baptist Church, said that he told Walton to slow down years ago as health issues took their toll. He once went straight from dialysis to church, a tube still in his arm.

“While he was playing the piano, the tube broke loose or something – I remember blood on the piano,” McJunkins said. “I had to tell him, ‘You have to let things go. Your love for the church is going to kill you.’”

Save for a year of piano lessons before leaving home in Danville, Virginia, to attend Knoxville College in Tennessee when he was 16 years old, he had no formal musical training. He played the occasional banquet, but never a nightclub. Jerry says that he would stay up until 3 a.m., playing his electric piano with headphones in the basement of the couple’s home until he got arrangements just right.

He loved Christmas. In his latter years, Jerry would sometimes find him quietly gazing at the tree in their home from his wheelchair. He had good taste in cars. After earning a degree in business education and administration from Knoxville College in 1967, he landed a personnel job with Magnavox in Greeneville, Tennessee, where he met his future wife – in church, of course. He drove a brand-new Dodge Charger, red with a black top, and everyone in town knew it.

“Everybody kept saying to me ‘Have you seen this guy with a red Charger? He goes up and down the street – you’ll see him drive by,’” Jerry says. “People just kept asking, kept asking.” And so she went up to him and started chatting after evening services one Sunday.

“The next thing I know, he was bringing me a banana split,” Jerry says. “He bought it at Dairy Queen, and it was dripping all over everything. It was at my mother’s house, and I thought ‘Dear God.’ I invited him into the kitchen, and we became friends after that.”

One thing led to another and the couple was married within a year of meeting. They moved to Henderson, Kentucky, where Walton was employed by the Singer company, the same one that makes sewing machines. In 1972, it was on to Springfield, where Walton worked in personnel for CIPS, which later became Ameren, until 1998. After that, he was hired for a management position in the Illinois Department of Human Services, where he worked from 1999 until retirement in 2012.

The loss of his legs to diabetes marked the end of his days as a regular player. Jerry thought he still sounded great, but she believes that he thought otherwise. Unable to use foot pedals, he only played if he happened to pass by a piano.

“I think he had so much respect for the instrument, he felt like he couldn’t do it justice,” she says.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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