WINTERVILLE, Ga. - When Mary Whitehead decided to step down from her piano bench at Winterville United Methodist Church, her fellow worshippers begged her to put on one final performance before backing away from the keys.
After playing for 75 years, Whitehead has a lot of songs to choose from.
Winterville United Methodist Church is holding a special service today in honor of the 91-year-old piano player, followed by a lunch celebration to round out "Mary Whitehead Day."
"I think it's awful nice of them to put on a special day for me, and I am going to miss playing the piano every Sunday, but I'm 91 years old," Whitehead said. "It's not so easy for me to get around as it used to be."
Whitehead, who started playing at church when she was 15, spent many of those early years traveling back and forth between Winterville and Tuckston United Methodist Church on Lexington Road.
Back then, the Tuckston and the Winterville churches shared the same preacher and would hold church services on alternating Sundays. At 18, Whitehead already played for Tuckston and was hired on to play during services at Winterville UMC, too. She bounced back and forth between churches for 35 years.
Along the way, Whitehead and her husband, Wesley, spent two years working in Savannah shipyards during World War II. Despite the change of scenery, Whitehead continued to play the piano, this time during services at their local community and worship center.
After the war, the couple settled in Winterville, where they'd live until Wesley's death 12 years ago.
During her long career, Whitehead has played everything from church hymns to Dixieland music - mostly by ear.
Though she took lessons from fourth grade through high school, most of the music Whitehead plays are songs she learned by pecking away at the black and white keys.
"I don't like to practice. If I can't play it by ear in a few minutes, then I don't want to play it," she said. "I've got to feel it to play it."
Arthritis in her hands has made feeling the music harder over the years, and failing sight in her right eye makes reading the sheet music more of a challenge.
After breaking her foot late last year, Whitehead decided that it was time to retire.
"I don't play as much as I used to, which is sad," she said. "I will miss the piano in the sanctuary at church. I loved playing on that piano."
Whitehead also loved playing Dixieland music with teens from in and around Winterville.
She formed the Winterville Marigold Merrymakers in the 1970s to play during the town's Marigold Festival, a summer fair her husband started during his two-decade stint as mayor of the city.
"I remember going to Frank Cape's mother's door when he was 14 and asked if he could play trumpet with me," Whitehead said. "Playing with those boys gave me a lot of joy."
The group played during festivals, for the governor and all over the state as a bicentennial group in the summer of 1976.
By the mid-1980s, the group had disbanded.
"It's hard to keep everybody together once they start graduating from the university and high school," Whitehead said.
She still listens to recordings made at her home of the boys practicing and arguing about who would play which instruments.
"That was so much fun," she said. "They were like my children."
Whitehead - who had three sons of her own - would also go on to play the piano for various retirement and senior centers in the area, and for seven years in the late 1980s and '90s played the piano during worship services in the Clarke County Jail.
"They taught me a lot doing that prison ministry," Whitehead said. "I realized going there that Jesus Christ shares just as much blood for any one of us as he did for any of the men who committed the sins that got them in there."
After Whitehead played the song "Room at the Cross for You" one Sunday, the jail chaplain requested she play it every week. She thinks about her time at the jail every time she plays the song.
"I loved going to that prison," Whitehead said. "It did me more good than it did them."
Not everyone is cut out to do prison ministry, Whitehead says.
"God didn't call on me to cook dinners and wash baseboards at the church, but that's important work, too," she said. "God didn't call all of us to do the same thing."
Organizers of the honorary "Mary Whitehead Day" hope some of the folks that Whitehead has played with over the years will be there to help her celebrate - and maybe even play a song or two.
Congregants are making food for about 250 people, including themselves, people from the community and Whitehead's friends and family.
Though Whitehead - who now lives in Watkinsville with her youngest son - will be going to a church closer to home, she doesn't have any plans to sit down at the keys again on a regular basis.
"I'm going to miss playing the piano," she said. "I didn't do it because I felt I was that good. God gave me the talent and I thought I needed to use it."