The small man in the tan suit and ocean blue tie stands slowly and weaves his way towards the steps leading to the altar. As he passes, hands reach out, ready to steady him, to guide his frail frame past the church pews and flower vases should he stumble or falter.
But Brother Roosevelt Harding will require no helping hands this morning. The 100-year-old musician mounts the steps by himself, walks past the choir and sits down at the time-worn piano tucked into the corner. His creased, chestnut-colored face stretches into a smile as his fingers pluck out the first dusty, soulful chords and the voices fall in behind him.
The congregation stands. The room fills with their song. The celebration has begun.
If Saturday’s Appreciation Ceremony at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church was chiefly about celebrating Harding’s 26 years of service to the faithful, it was also a testament to the enduring bonds of friendship and the timeless power of music.
Harding, a Virginia native who hit the century mark last month, first began playing piano in church at the age of 13. In later years, accompanied by his wife, Nettie, the young musician traveled throughout the country, working as a cook for an opera singer in Chicago, and later for a doctor in Cape May, N.J. At one point, he was even employed by news anchor Tom Brokaw’s uncle, Warren Brokaw, in Chevy Chase, Md.
“My grandmother told me younger people ought to get out and see the world, to see what life is really like,” he said, between bites of his celebration dinner, “I’ve been all over. I’ve had a good time in life”
Following the death of Nettie in 1971, Harding pulled up stakes and moved to Weldon, where he worked at Rabel’s department store. Having neglected music for a number of years, he once again began playing in local churches. He hasn’t looked back since.
For the past two and a half decades, Harding has served as Minister of Music to Little Zion, located in a small, wood-frame building on N.C. Highway 561, as well as lending his talents to other churches in the area.
The joy and good will was evident in the voices of the pastors, members of the congregation and friends who stood up Saturday to offer their words of appreciation and remembrance.
“Brother, we love you, we love you so much. It’s a blessing for us to be around you,” offered Rev. John W. Smith Sr., the church’s pastor, while Rev. McKinley High reflected on his 40-year friendship with Harding. “I’ve never had such a devoted friend,” he said, pointing to the smiling honoree, “He’s a missionary, he’s my mentor; he’s like my father. He can call on me day or night and I’ll go and see about him.”
Long-time friend Dorris Sweat talked about the man she’s gotten to know outside of the church, during their frequent doctor visits.
“Whenever he’s aggravated he has a way of shrugging his shoulders, which means ‘I’m not going to discuss it,'” she stated with a grin. “All the nurse’s love him, you should see the way they fuss over him. They always know they’re gonna have a good time when I bring him.”
In addition to his church duties, Harding also finds time to perform for local rest homes, such as Guardian Care in Roanoke Rapids and Convalescent Center of Halifax in Weldon.
He’s also found time for romance.
Accompanying him to church Saturday was Jessie Sessoms, the 96-year-old “younger woman” Harding met at Becker Manor in Roanoke Rapids, where he’s lived for the past 12 years.
As she stood and addressed the audience Saturday, her joy was palpable.
“I’m on the road he’s already reached,” she said proudly, her white hair peeking out from beneath a black, flower-brimmed hat. “At 100 he ain’t gonna get no younger girl, cause I’ve already got him.”
After returning to her seat beside Harding, she clasped his hand, grinned and said, “The lord gave me another sweetheart. Thank you for celebrating him. Not everybody’s got a sweetheart like this.”
Prior to the remembrance ceremony, Harding joined the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church choir for a rousing version of “Victory is Mine” and several other traditional hymns. Playing with the verve and energy of a man half his age, he sang along with the choir as his left foot worked the piano pedals and his right foot moved up and down, stamping out the locomotive-like beat. His scarred yet delicate fingers moved across the piano with grace and strength.
“He has a gift,” said Rev. Smith, remembering the first time he heard Harding perform. “He’s the type of musician you can start singing and he’ll just pick you up.”
Evidence of Smith’s words were apparent throughout the church, as the small but spirited congregation danced in the aisles, delivering shouts of praise and glory as the wine red carpet and wooden pews shook and rocked with the music and moving bodies.
“Yes Lord, 100-years-old,” shouted Sessoms, arms raised to the ceiling, dancing slowly down the center aisle as the light filtered in through the blue and yellow stained glass windows.
Following a rousing set of spirituals performed by “The Roanoke Jubilees,” Harding and his fellow church members adjourned to the dining area, where a display showcasing congratulation letters from president’s Bush, Clinton and Carter and Gov. Mike Easley were on display, as well as a declaration from Roanoke Rapids Mayor Pro-Tem Carl Ferebee.
After being serenaded with a round of “Happy Birthday” and blowing out the imaginary candles on his cake, the still-youthful centenarian offered a few words on the spirit and attitude that’s kept him going.
“My theory has always been, I just love people. My mother used to say I’d give away anything I have. People just make me happy,” he said in his slow, gravelly whisper. “I’ve enjoyed life. I’ve had difficult times of course, like we all do in life. But I’ve been lucky.”
Rev. Smith, who’s performed with Harding for the past 18 years, has his own theory on his friend’s longevity.
“Music is a way of life with him, it’s contributed to his good health, it really has. He has not called in sick, not one time,” he said, as he nodded towards the birthday boy and added, “The man sometimes plays 3 to 4 churches in one day. But you know what? He hasn’t talked to me about any retirement program yet.”