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Piano 'key' to centenarian's longevity
Nov 26

By DAVID HURST, The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat

PORTAGE, Pa. (AP) _ Rhea Hornyak prepared to step into the Royal Ballroom earlier this month to celebrate an extraordinary birthday - and nearly a century of song.

A former Portage elementary school teacher who started playing piano at church in the years following World War I, Hornyak planned to mark her 105th birthday the way she's spent some of the fondest moments of her life.

She said she would be the pianist at her own party, entertaining a hometown crowd of more than 200 friends and family members.

``It'll be a concert,'' Hornyak said, turning from her piano with a smile inside her family's Johnson Avenue home. ``A chance to see friends ... and play some of my favorite songs.''

The Portage woman said music has always been a passion.

But it wasn't always an easy pursuit, she said.

Hornyak grew up in a poor, blue-collar home near the railroad tracks alongside what is now Dulancy Drive.

At a time many Americans were celebrating the decadence of the Roaring '20s, she recalled walking to the Harris Hotel to fumble at the keys of its piano because her family couldn't afford one.

``From the first moment I started playing, it made me feel happy inside. Playing music just elevated my whole being,'' Hornyak said. ``I just had to play.''

By 1922, at age 8, she made up her mind to teach herself the craft because private lessons were too expensive, she said.

By that point, Hornyak was already the Sunday School pianist at Portage's Bethany United Methodist Church, where she still plays today.

By age 12, she found work inside Portage Borough's Pastime Theatre on Gilllespie Avenue. While friends or neighbors were spending their dimes to see the motion pictures of the moment, Hornyak was down in the front at the piano, playing the accompaniment.

During the silent-film era, musicians played inside theater pits to bring life and emotion to the moving pictures that illuminated the silver screen.

``When I first started there, I thought they'd hand me sheet music. But they just said `Watch the movie and play to what you see,''' she said. ``So, I did.''

She estimated she ``probably made 50 cents'' a day at the job. But it was valuable experience, Hornyak added.

Thanks to a scholarship, she attended Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio - and later Indiana University of Pennsylvania - for an elementary education degree.

Hornyak recalled practicing chords for hours by tapping her fingers on a wooden desk as a young college student because she had no other way to play outside of class.

She said she never complained about it.

``It made my fingers stronger,'' she said, matter-of-factly.

Before long, her professor discovered her secret, Hornyak said.

``She told me, `From now on when you need to practice, come to my house and practice on my Steinway,' '' Hornyak recalled.

After returning home, she took a job at Portage Elementary, teaching English, reading, history - and as many art and music courses as her colleagues would trade her.

``A lot of the men didn't like teaching music,'' she said. ``To me, it was a blessing. I've always told people that I couldn't believe I was paid for it, because I enjoyed it so much.''

Hornyak and her husband, John, had a home built in town - on design plans she drew up.

Together, they adopted three children - Carol, Jim and Joy.

But even while raising her family, there was always time for music, at home and on the road, she said.

In the 1970s, she played for a Portage trio, The Gospel 3.

The group played across the region, as far away as Pittsburgh, she said.

Her former bandmates all passed away years ago, but Hornyak has kept playing - at church mostly - ever since. A former Gospel 3 staple, ``He Touched Me,'' has become part of the soundtrack of her life, she said.

The verse ``Let not your heart be troubled'' has also been a lifelong guide, Hornyak added.

``I never ever worry about anything, because everything is in the hands of the Lord,'' she said.

Debbie Baxter, a keyboardist and fellow Bethany United church member, described Hornyak as an inspiration.

``As a piano player, she has a God-given gift. She's someone who can sit down and just play from memory,'' Baxter said. ``But she's also a wonderful woman who has such a positive outlook on life.''

She described Hornyak as a devoted woman of God, a mentor and a cherished friend.

``You can't talk about Rhea without gushing,'' Baxter said. ``When times change and technology advances, she has always gone right along with it.''

Hornyak said her faith and a passion for family, fellowship and food - ``I love chocolate,'' she said - keep her going.

She said she stays active, whether she's at home, at church or on a Saturday drive with family to Bedford County.

These days, Hornyak said she still feels ``wonderful'' physically. But she has to use a magnifier to memorize her Sunday hymns and acknowledged her vision has deteriorated to the point that she's nearly blind.

``At the rate it's going, it could be a month,'' she said. ``But no matter what happens, I'm going to keep playing as long as I can.''

Today - as it was nearly a century ago - Hornyak said she still relishes every chance.

But this time, the piano will come to her.

On, Saturday, family were to roll her church's piano across the street to the Royal Ballroom, ``so Mom can play,'' her daughter, Joy Powers, said.

The crowd was to include cherished friends, neighbors and former students, including a few who followed her footsteps into teaching.

``It's going to be a time of music, memories and thank you's,'' Powers said.





Information from: The Tribune-Democrat, http://www.tribune-democrat.com

By The Associated Press, Copyright 2019