Longtime Corning resident and iconic local musician Mary Lucille Walker (née Harper) died at 94, April 29, 2021, surrounded by her family. Mary Lu, as she was known to friends, family and the many people who knew her through her music, was born July 4 in Newark, New Jersey in 1926 to the late Sidney and May Harper. She married William Donald Walker (deceased) in Springfield, OH, 1951. She was much beloved for her music and many performances especially for children in Corning, New York.
Mary Lu is survived by her children Mark (Tia), Matt (Jenifer), Jane, John (Debbie), Anne (Shaw), Peg (Sean) and Willie II (Kelly). Mary Lu leaves music and memories of an enduring and engaging spirit with thirteen grandchildren (Patrick, Jenna, MaryRose, Willy, Liam, Sidney, Cecelia, Anne, Eileen, Sully, Amelia, Maddy, Jackie), and three great grandchildren. She is survived by her sister Guenveur and brother Edward. In addition to her parents and husband Mary Lu was predeceased by her son Luke (Bess), brothers William and Michael and son in law Eugene.
Mary Lu’s life took place amid upheavals that included life in Montgomery, AL and Atlanta, GA. She and her family were among the millions affected by the Great Depression. Her parents made music an important part of home life, attending voice and instrument recitals and performances whenever possible. After completing high school in 1943, she was a research assistant at Wright Patterson Aeromedical Laboratories in a program that was a precursor to the U.S. space program. She took part in trials to determine pilots’ tolerances for decreased oxygen at high altitudes and became very familiar with aircraft used in World War II. She was the only mother in a neighborhood full of children who could identify any aircraft used during the war. She was involved with the Catholic Church’s early efforts to popularize mass by adding singing and performance to mass. However, she found very little for children in the music available for performances on the altar and looked for ways to meet the need.
She had an enterprising and resilient take on life that led to a notable creative career. At 48, she taught herself to play a guitar from a second hand store in Corning, NY. Much of her recorded work was for children and stressed cooperation, fairness and love. Her music entertained and educated. She completed eight albums and many, many songs for her grandchildren for birthdays and other special occasions.
She was an activist involved in many social causes in the Corning area. She was an ardent peace promoter, a staunch advocate for racial equality as a member of Corning’s bi-racial council, a proponent of improved care for the elderly, and a promoter of the arts. She played on street corners protesting wars and participated in many African American events. She was active in Corning Area Aging in Place, and attended many art events in the area. She was often a leader, but also supported the arts and causes important to her by being an enthusiastic participant.
She was generous as a performer, playing her music of hope and love to many audiences in the southern tier and throughout the world. Her music was a regular feature on the nationally syndicated PBS program Weekend Radio and Woody’s Children, broadcast by WQXR in New York City. WSKG Public Television in Binghamton, NY annually aired “Everybody Has A Song,” during which she performed her songs for children. Her “Advent Song” is used by congregations throughout the world to prepare for Christmas.
She performed in schools, universities, churches, concert halls, and open-air theaters across the United States and in Fiji, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Australia, Japan, Pakistan, Ukraine and Russia. She traveled to Lviv, Ukraine as part of the Sister Cities program and co-hosted reciprocal visits. In 1989, at the invitation of the Children’s Theater of Lviv, Ukraine, she took part in "Children of the Earth," a musical featuring her songs for children with those of Serge Banyevitch, a composer from St. Petersburg. In the mid 1980’s, Walker was host and performer on “Saints Alive,” a series of 20 short video programs produced by ITV of the Archdiocese of New York. She was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji (1990 to 1992) and presented a weekly children’s radio program, “Share The Sunlight.” She remained politically active, including voting at age 94, stating her opinions during public meetings held by local government and vigorously supporting candidates for federal elected office.
She met her husband Don in Cincinnati, OH in 1950 while both worked for Proctor and Gamble. In 1951 she and Don moved to Corning, NY, started a family and contributed tremendously to the community. She included her children and neighborhood children in a local bluegrass band “New Grass'' and performed frequently at summer events in Corning. She was a part of the “East Side Laundry,” a local band that involved many of the region’s best and most enthusiastic musicians over several decades. At 90, she continued to entertain children throughout the region with songs that she composed and recorded, including playing for children often at the Southeast Steuben County Public Library’s Children’s Morning Program in Corning.
The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers recognized her with the “Popular Award” each year from 1984--1994. In 1989 she received the Arts Partnership Award from the Chemung Valley Arts Council. In 1994 the Girl Scouts of America honored her together with Astronaut Eileen Collins as “Women of Excellence Today.” In 2017, the Jefferson Award Foundation recognized her public service with a regional award, which she accepted on a national stage in Washington, D.C. by accompanying herself on guitar singing one of her compositions, “Everybody has a song.”
The family thanks all of the caregivers from Visiting Angels who helped Mary Lu age in place and die in her home, with special thanks to Penny Burdick. Her memorial service will include music, stories and shared memories and will be held at a later date, to be announced. No flowers please--instead, please make donations in her memory to the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, the Arts Council of the Finger Lakes, and Friends of the Library.
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