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Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010 04:02 pm

The symphony’s singer of a century

A talented centenarian looks back on a remarkable life

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Polly Roesch
When Illinois Symphony music director Karen Lynne Deal first met Polly Roesch at a musical program several years ago, numerous women around the table urged Deal to ask Roesch to sing with the symphony.

“I couldn’t have guessed then that Polly was 97 years old,” recalls Deal. “I’d never met anyone that age. But with all her friends’ enthusiasm and her calm willingness – I thought if Polly has the courage to do this, why not? Later, when I heard her sing in her pure, lyrical voice, it was an incredible moment. I’ve been in the music business for 30 years. I’ve never even heard of anyone her age performing – let alone on an auditorium stage with a 100-piece orchestra and 1,200 people in the audience. Even famous opera singers couldn’t do what Polly does.”

On Dec. 18, just twelve days after her 100th birthday, Roesch will take the stage again – this time for her third appearance at the symphony’s annual holiday pops concert at Sangamon Auditorium. She plans to sing her favorite holiday classic, “Silver Bells,” along with “Let There Be Peace On Earth.” Deal has already nominated Roesch for the Guinness Book of World Records as the first centenarian to perform with a symphony orchestra.

Roesch says she’s fine if her performance makes the record book, but “the highlight for me is when I sing with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra. That beautiful music, under the direction of Karen Lynne Deal. That’s what means the most.”

Born in Farmersville in 1910, Roesch has loved music as long as she can remember. She sang songs at age three, earning the occasional nickel. She learned to dance the soft shoe from her father, imitating his dance steps on the linoleum kitchen floor. Later came piano lessons and voice training.

In all her years of singing – for funerals, weddings, benefits, even the national anthem sung a cappella at a horse show – she says she never experiences stage fright.

“I always wanted to be a singer. I was a young teenager when my father took me to MacMurray College for a voice competition. We arrived late because of car trouble, but I still came in second.”

She says a zest for living and good genes may account for her long, productive life. The seventh of nine children in a family that has longevity on its side, she exercises daily and keeps her voice strong by vocalizing. Her elder sister, Esta Brehm, just marked her 103rd birthday. The two celebrated by throwing a dual birthday open house that attracted around 300 people.

Her childhood was a happy one. She attended a one-room grade school in rural New Berlin, and learned to drive herself to high school in the family’s Model T Ford – long before the advent of driver’s licenses. Later, she took classes at a business college and landed her first job as secretary to Walter Roesch, a young entrepreneur who, at age 20, already owned a car service garage and some farmland. Her salary was $7 a week.

“I met Walter at Carter’s Drug Store in New Berlin when I was 16. He was kidding around with my girlfriends, and frankly, at the time I thought he was a little fresh. Once I started working for him, I learned to like him.”

“I guess you could say love prevailed,” she says, laughing. “We were married for 43 years.”

Widowed in 1977, Roesch never had children of her own, but for the past 25 years she has quietly funded educational scholarships for needy students in music and agriculture. Besides education and music, her passions run the gamut from gardening to twice weekly games of bridge. She works with managers of her farmland and follows the corn and soybean markets. She remains active on community boards and has her own philanthropic foundation.

“I wasn’t blessed with children, but if I can help the leaders of tomorrow, then I’ve accomplished something.”

In the past few years, Roesch’s health has been up and down. Although she sometimes uses a cane, she has no intention of slowing down.

Her advice? “The worst thing you can do is be inactive. Get out, and get busy.”

Julie Cellini writes about arts, culture and life in general for Illinois Times.

The annual Illinois Symphony Orchestra Holiday Pops Concert featuring Polly Roesch in celebration of her 100th birthday will take place Saturday, Dec. 18, at Sangamon Auditorium. Tickets are available by calling 217-206-6160. Tickets will also be available at the door beginning two hours before the performance.
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