HAUBSTADT, Ind. (AP) - As an 8-year-old, Helen (Kissel) Kiesel joyfully learned the accordion with help from a nun in Haubstadt.
More than 60 years later, she’s inspiring the same joy in others by playing jaunty tunes at area nursing homes, half-marathons and polka masses.
It started in about 1948, when melodeon melodies drifted across the road from the Hornville Tavern into her childhood home.
At first, her parents wouldn’t have it.
“They wanted me to take piano lessons, and I did. They made me,” she told the Princeton Daily Clarion (https://bit.ly/1Hh1Dy0 ). “I cried and cried and cried until they finally broke down and got me an accordion.”
So began the accordion lessons with Sister Jonette, and later from another nun at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Evansville.
The nuns would come in wintertime, but always returned to Ferdinand in the summer.
Kiesel, of Haubstadt, still has the somewhat tattered music book and remembers the first song she learned: “My First Song Waltz.”
She keeps a full schedule, volunteering at nursing homes, veterans’ events, and at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Haubstadt. She goes to Indianapolis, Henderson, Kentucky; Albion, Illinois; Ferdinand and other places that aren’t too far from Gibson County.
“Church means a lot to me,” she said, adding that she also relishes entertaining the Daughters of Charity, a group of nuns.
Kiesel’s a regular at Parkview Nursing Home, Heritage Nursing Home, Good Samaritan Nursing Home, RiverOaks in Princeton, and more.
Why does she take her talent to the nursing and retirement homes?
“Because I love the people, just to see them happy for an hour…I get more out of it than they do, I think.”
RiverOaks life enrichment director Dawn Green says residents love Kiesel’s visits.
“They go to the dining room and wait for her,” she said. Kiesel’s accordion-playing visits are probably the most popular activity at RiverOaks, she said.
“I have known her for 20 years with coming to nursing homes, not just this one,” Green said, “She worked with me at Parkview (nursing home in Evansville), she’s done this a long time.”
On the first Tuesday of the month, residents get up and do the “Chicken Dance” and other dances when Kiesel is there, Green said.
“She can really draw a crowd,” Green said, “I know they enjoy it.”
Kiesel always begins her performance by saying, “I’m Helen Kiesel and I’m from Haubstadt.”
Her most requested song at the nursing homes is “Tennessee Waltz” or “You Are My Sunshine”
Her favorite song was also her father’s favorite - “Red Wing.”
Recently she was performing “Red Wing” and was told something that reinforces why she plays tunes for those who are so often forgotten.
“This here lady, she made me feel so good, she said, ‘I’m 98 years old and my mother sang that to me,’” Kiesel grew emotional as she continued, ‘“She sat me on her knee and sang that to me.’”
After high school (when she was a member of the Campbells Accordion Band in Evansville), she put away her squeezebox and married at the age of 20. Kiesel was a stay-at-home mother to five, then became a grandmother to 17.
“I never thought I would go out and play,” she said.
Even when she picked up the concertina nearly 20 years ago, she had stage fright. Her parents wanted her to play for them again - and when she finally did at the retirement home where her parents lived, she “found out that day it was so much fun. Now that I do it, it’s all I want to do.”
She still has the accordion her parents gifted her with in high school - along with 11 others, two of which are electric. Each one has a different purpose, whether it’s church, performing at a nursing home, or at a public event where she can hook up to amplifiers.
“I just love accordions,” she said.
Nowadays Kiesel’s mostly a solo act. During summertime, she dresses in traditional German attire and squeezes out German tunes for the Laufenfest run, and Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church polka mass during the Haubstadt Sommerfest.
She can play just about anything on her accordion_country music, variety, worship music. Her fingers dance on the keys and move carefully across the bass side (“You’ve got to hit the right one or you know it,”) as she taps her toes and smiles while the music flows like a river of life.
Kiesel always makes sure patriotic songs like “America, The Beautiful” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag” are part of the agenda wherever she goes.
“I don’t think you can ever play too much for (veterans). They’re a special people,” she said.
She doesn’t forget the veterans’ wives, either, with the tune “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone But Me).”
Kiesel is pleased her husband of 54 years supports her musical work.
“My husband, he backs me,” she said confidently.
Kiesel says she wouldn’t be able to do her music without God. She hopes to continue for a long while.
“I don’t know how long I’ll get to do this,” she said thoughtfully, “as long as the good Lord lets me.”
She added, “People ask me, ‘Don’t your back ever hurt?’ And it doesn’t. God gave me a good back and good shoulders. I’m blessed.”
Information from: Princeton Daily Clarion, https://www.tristate-media.com/pdclarion
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