JoAnn Derden, whose preferred names were ‘Mom’ and ‘Nana,’ joined her beloved husband, Elton, on a beautiful Monday morning. She was surrounded by her children, Helen and Paul, her granddaughter Katie, and her ‘bonus’ grandson Paul (whom, based on his Charleston ties, JoAnn affectionately dubbed ‘CharleyPaul’ to minimize confusion with son Paul!). Her passing was peaceful, but it was impossible not to imagine the celebration upon her arrival!
Although JoAnn was a child of the Depression, her mother insisted she take piano lessons. JoAnn balked mightily at practicing but had enough natural talent that by 8th grade, she had composed several pieces for piano. When word got out, she was asked to play some of them at an assembly for the entire school. After the performance, she was asked to compose the school song, which she did.
JoAnn studied piano with Jeannette Tillett (‘J.T.’) at the Fort Worth Conservatory of Music and also Texas Christian University (TCU). She also studied with Silvio Scionti at then-North Texas State College; as a freshman, she became a member of Scionti’s traveling group of students playing all of Beethoven’s Sonatas. While she was at University of North Texas, JoAnn was given the opportunity to assist Isabel Scionti, Silvio’s former wife and concert pianist, with her overflow pupils.
JoAnn suffered such severe stage fright that she performed her Senior Recital at TCU under hypnosis. Always her own harshest critic, even she was pleased with the performance!
In her 20s and early 30s, JoAnn, who lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and her oldest sister Elizabeth, who moved from Fort Worth to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a few years, collaborated on several two-piano concerts in both cities. Practicing while they lived in separate states was a bit of a challenge! Elizabeth insisted that all pieces (always classical masterpieces) be memorized, a feat marveled by William J. Marsh, Fort Worth Star Telegram music critic and composer of “Texas, Our Texas,” the official state song.
JoAnn taught many students in Fort Worth. She believed music should be fun, and that included recitals! Because of her experience with stage fright, she did all she could to make sharing music fun for both the players and the listeners. Music for two pianos fit that category, and it became an important teaching tool as well as a most enjoyable one. One of her favorite recitals was played on stage at the Southwestern Baptist Seminary. Every student, beginner and advanced, played all of Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals.” JoAnn’s willing and entertaining husband, Elton, read Ogden Nash’s humorous verses introducing each piece. It was most successful in every way!
When JoAnn’s daughter Helen turned 12, the duo began a long, delightful tenure of playing two-piano programs together, many of which were for the music clubs to which JoAnn belonged. Thankfully, nothing was memorized! Many years later, after JoAnn and Elton and Helen and her husband, Randy, moved to Lenoir, NC, one favorite assignment was as late fill-in accompanists for Hibriten High School’s performance of Kiss Me, Kate. JoAnn and Helen had their new digital pianos moved to the school, so the performers and audience (and the pianists!) were privy to a Broadway moment with the orchestral accompaniment!
During their few years in Lenoir, JoAnn and Helen started Kinder Conservatory, a private music school for children 18 months to 6 years. The program was so successful, they were asked to take a modified version to all the daycares in Caldwell County in conjunction with the new Smart Start program. Part of each class included JoAnn’s improvisations on a portable keyboard to match Helen’s reading of a children’s book or story. As Helen’s animation tended to vary so she wouldn’t get bored(!), JoAnn quickly upped her game to keep up. It was great fun and the first time for this particular music task, setting the stage for future original music projects.
JoAnn’s youngest grandson, Jeffrey, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a progressive neuromuscular disease, at two months of age. When she learned that he would likely snag his angel wings before too long, ‘Nana’ whipped up a collection of original songs for him. He loved them! “Dreams for Jeffrey” was JoAnn’s first commercially duplicated CD.
One of JoAnn’s biggest supporters was Elton, although her original music, flowing through her fingers without benefit of written music (ever!), was so soothing, he rarely lasted 15 minutes before being lulled to sleep! JoAnn and Elton met when they were juniors at Paschal High School in Fort Worth. Their first date began a special love story, and they married on January 24, 1953. Elton was a much-loved teacher and principal in the Fort Worth schools until his retirement in 1985. He was also Administrator of the District XI School Employees’ Blood Bank, with membership increasing impressively under his leadership. They were married 53 years when Elton’s earthly duties ended.
A few months after Elton’s death, JoAnn returned to the keyboard and began creating again. “Grief: Loss and Recovery” was unlike anything she’d done before and was a masterpiece. However, there was a persistent hum on the recordings that could not be removed. Technicians couldn’t find anything wrong with the keyboard, so another was ordered. JoAnn didn’t like it, though, so it was packed back up to make way for her old faithful Korg. Undaunted, she sat down and created another “Grief.” Since nothing was written down, it was a little different from the first, but she liked it even better. And there was no hum. Her eye surgeon said he played it during surgery, and an artist friend said it was the only music she could listen to repeatedly while painting without tiring of it.
Not long after “Grief” came “The Story of Noah’s Ark: A Musical Interpretation” - another masterpiece! Paul’s addition of a few key special effects makes the listener feel like he’s riding the storm with Noah.
One of JoAnn’s favorite musical endeavors, besides playing and writing songs with Helen, was working with Paul. While Helen soaked up music and fully enjoyed playing with JoAnn, Paul balked at piano lessons. Helen and Paul inherited the musical gift of hearing music in their heads - simple tunes and elaborate arrangements. JoAnn could (and did) magically transform any melody into an arrangement at the keyboard. Helen learned enough to scribble original songs on paper. JoAnn loved taking Paul’s tunes and and bringing them to life on the keyboard. She incorporated his melodies in several of her recordings.
Over the past few years, JoAnn’s vision began dwindling, first taking away her ability to see the controls at her beloved keyboard, and gradually removing even the ability to see her family’s faces up close. She was ready for that train, eager to meet back up with Elton and baby Jeffrey, along with a host of others! She hopped aboard peacefully, wasting no time letting Helen and Paul know she was doing great in her new perfect spot but not about to forget us here. Her music projects will continue, thanks to Helen and Paul… even though they aren’t quite sure how yet. Stay tuned!
Many thanks from the family are in order, from the medics at Ashe Medics who took Mom to the emergency room at Ashe Memorial Hospital, to the entire ER staff, including Dr. Sullivan, who tended to Mom after her admission. The nurses and assistants on the 2nd floor (too numerous to name or remember!), Dr. Sachs, and Amanda Calloway (patient advocate) treated Mom and us just like family. We couldn’t have asked for any better. In addition, Dr. Krontz at Western Carolina Eye Associates (and Bonnie and Allison and all the others who assisted with Mom) worked effortlessly to accommodate Mom’s increasing needs the past few years. Finally, many thanks to Josh Roten at Badger Funeral Home for his easy demeanor in taking care of the final tasks.
Mom demanded a Nana Party instead of a service, just like the Papa Party we held many years ago. We have some plans in mind and know she would approve!
JoAnn was preceded in death by her parents, Joseph and Grace Johnston, her husband, Elton Derden, her sisters, Elizabeth Adkisson and Peggy Gibbons, her grandbaby, Jeffrey Baldwin, and numerous others. She is survived by her daughter Helen Baldwin (Randy) of Jefferson, NC, son Paul Derden (Jaymie), of Abingdon, VA, grandchildren Matthew Baldwin (Jill) of Jefferson, Katie Fischer (Paul) of Charleston, SC, Jonathan Derden (Randi) of Clover, SC, Bethany Sandefur (Jake) of Abingdon, great-grandchildren Clara and James Baldwin, Elliott, Ryan, and Quinn Derden, Gracie and Jude Sandefur, and Bodie Fischer. Her cat Mitty has moved in with Helen and Randy and now has a couple of canine sisters.
JoAnn loved her family more than anything, reaping what she sowed with much love from every member in return. If we're lucky, we all inherited a good dose of her wit, ability to laugh at ourselves, and her 'determination.'
For anyone desiring to make a donation in JoAnn’s memory:
Crossroads Medical Mission - CMM is a free medical clinic serving northeast TN and southwest VA since 2002, co-founded by JoAnn’s son, Paul Derden. Donations may be made online or by mail: Crossroads Medical Mission - PO Box 16852 - Bristol, VA 24209-6852. Please note ‘In memory of JoAnn Derden’ so your donation is properly acknowledged.
Jadon’s Hope Foundation - Jadon’s Hope Foundation strives to promote educational awareness and fund research efforts for Spinal Muscular Atrophy, the #1 genetic killer of infants under the age of two, while also providing support for families affected by terminal childhood diseases. JoAnn’s grandbaby, Jeffrey Baldwin, had SMA. Donations may be made online or by mail: Jadon’s Hope Foundation - PO Box 742 - Olathe, KS 66051. Please note ‘In memory of JoAnn Derden’ so your donation is properly acknowledged. A third option is to choose a charity of your choice!