Saltwater Portrait

Playing piano a win for Walter Winn

88-year-old performs weekly at Cadbury, Brandywine
Walter Winn, 88, sits alongside the piano he plays at Cadbury Health Center in Lewes every Tuesday and Saturday. BY NICK ROTH
August 21, 2012

As residents of Cadbury Health Center in Lewes came and went one recent afternoon, they were greeted by the soothing sounds of their past. Whether it's show tunes, love songs or holiday carols, 88-year-old Walter Winn is ready and willing to play them.

Every Tuesday and Saturday, Winn plays the piano for an hour every Tuesday and Saturday at Cadbury. He also travels with his caretaker Priscilla King Smith for performances at Renaissance Healthcare Nursing Home in Millsboro on Mondays and Brandywine Senior Living in Rehoboth on Fridays.

“I really enjoy it,” he said. “It gives me something to do.”

Winn learned to play the piano in the late 1930s, when his mother sent him to a piano teacher. He's played off and on ever since. But it wasn't until his wife of 55 years died three years ago at age 83 of type 1 diabetes that he really embraced his talents. It was Smith who urged him to play again.

“When his wife died, he wanted to die with her,” she said. “It was 50-some years of marriage. He was depressed all the time.”

Once he started playing again, it became a passion. Winn practices every day from his book of more than 1,000 songs. When an admirer requests a song he doesn't know, Smith said, she downloads the sheet music from the internet for Winn to learn before his next performance.

Residents are also treated to Smith's talented singing voice. When Winn plays a song she knows the words to, such as hymns, she'll sing along.

“I usually sing along with the ones I know,” she said. “Some of them are way older than me.”

Winn said his favorite songs to play are popular tunes from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the duo who created the popular Broadway musicals “Oklahoma!,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music,” and many others. He said it reminds him of the heyday of Broadway.

Shortly after beginning college at the University of California Berkley, World War II started, and Winn enlisted in the Army. He wound up with a group from the university tagged to study Japanese. They spent a year at Yale, another at Michigan then basic training before ending up at Fort Snelling in Minnesota.

“By that time, the war was over,” Winn said. “Somebody dropped the bomb. They said they still needed me in Japan because there are a lot of documents to translate.”

“When I was studying Japanese at Yale, I could hitchhike down to New York,” he said. “In those days, if you were in uniform, you could stand by the highway and the first car would always stop.”

His expertise in the Japanese language led him into a career with the Central Intelligence Agency, where he worked for 25 years before taking an early retirement. His knowledge of Japanese led him to posts in Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

“They kept sending me back to the Far East because even in Korea there's lots of people who speak Japanese,” he said.

Once retired, he said, he began helping his wife with her art career. She specialized in flowers and landscape painting, and Winn would build her frames and help her at various art shows around the Washington, D.C., area.

The couple moved to the Cape Region about five years ago to be closer to Winn's son and family. After his daughter-in-law discovered he played the piano, she invited him to play at her church on a few occasions, and from there it blossomed into a rediscovered passion.

“Even though I don't play the piano particularly well it keeps me occupied,” he said.

Smith quickly replied, “I think he sounds great.”