Gretchen Downer: Playing the Notes of Life

By Leslie Moore

Gretchen Downer: Playing the Notes of Life

I met Gretchen Downer at her home on the south end of the Grand Strand where we visited in her oceanfront living room, filled with tasteful furnishings, art and, of course, a baby grand piano. I soon found that these lovely surroundings were a direct reflection of the woman who lives there. At 67, this musician and champion of the arts is gracious, attractive and caring, possessing the kind of beauty that only comes from a well-lived, and well-loved, life.

Far from being a woman of leisure, Gretchen’s life is filled with friends, family, devotion to her community and, of course, music. Her close friends know to clear their calendars when this talented pianist holds“Music Night” gatherings where everyone enjoys singing their favorite tunes while Gretchen plays piano, and maybe her husband, Tom, will join in on the saxophone. A devoted volunteer, Gretchen was co-chair of the Brookgreen Gardens Gala for two years and is currently President of the Friends of Brookgreen Gardens. She also serves on the Pawleys Island Festival of Music & Art Board of Directors. In addition to all of this, Gretchen performs locally at fundraisers, civic clubs, churches and local clubs and has just released a CD with her partner and co-founder of the musical duo, We Do Piano. This month, Gretchen will be playing holiday music at the Good Friends Luncheon in Georgetown County on December 9th at Pawleys Plantation. Good Friends is a non-profit organization devoted to helping low-income families with basic needs and 100% of the $20 ticket price goes to help our less fortunate residents.

Helping to improve and preserve the beauty of Brookgreen Gardens is a very important part of Gretchen’s life, and her family takes great pride in her accomplishments. Several years ago Gretchen’s husband and children funded a special section of Brookgreen Gardens in her honor named, of course, “Gretchen’s Garden.” An almost daily visitor, Gretchen says, “I feel like Brookgreen is my second home.”

Music, specifically playing the piano, has been the consistent thread running through Gretchen’s life for as long as she can remember. “I performed in my first concert at four and a half years old, well before I ever took my first piano lesson. It was held at Western Carolina University Summer School, and I played ‘Buttons and Bows.’ I did take piano lessons starting at around five years old and continued through high school, but have always been able to play by ear.”

A native of Mooresville, North Carolina, Gretchen grew up an only child and reached out to others for friendship and companionship at an early age. She believes that’s why she’s able to make friends so easily today. In 1961, Gretchen won the title of Miss Mooresville, and was a runner up in the Miss North Carolina pageant. The woman who won the Miss North Carolina title that year, Maria Beale Fletcher, went on to become Miss America, the only North Carolina contestant to ever win the title, and Gretchen was excited to tell me that the two women had recently reconnected. “In 2005, I was in Myrtle Beach at a local coffee house where I had been invited to play. While I was performing, a woman introduced herself to my husband. After I finished, Tom said he wanted to introduce us, but I recognized her immediately. It was Maria Fletcher. We reconnected that day and have become good friends since.”

When I asked Gretchen to tell me her favorite kind of music to play, she hesitated, and told me she loves all music, but probably enjoys playing Broadway show tunes the best. She continued by telling me that while she was in high school, in the 50s, she was a member of an “Elvis-style” rock and roll band and the young musicians would travel to Myrtle Beach to play at the old Pavilion. “My parents weren’t at all sure that was the right thing for me to do,” Gretchen remembers with a smile. “At the time, that type of music was considered a little risqué!”

While in college at Chapel Hill, Gretchen met Tom Downer, the love of her life. He was a law student at the time and gave Gretchen his fraternity pin on their second date. When I asked Gretchen about her marriage, she quietly said that “it really was love at first sight, and after 45 years of marriage, we’re still very much in love.” The couple settled in Charlotte, where Tom began his law practice, and they raised their three children. Today, Tom maintains his practice in Charlotte where the couple still has a home. “Tom will never retire,” laughs Gretchen. “He loves his work.” But, even though Gretchen now lives here full time, Tom spends every weekend and holiday with his bride, in their home by the sea.

Expressing a shared love of music has been one way the couple has connected through the years, not only in playing their instruments, but as dance partners. Tom and Gretchen love the shag and are members of the South Strand Shag Club, dancing somewhere nearly every weekend. “We are sort of ‘ambassadors’ of shagging,” said Gretchen. “We grew up with this dance and love introducing it to our new friends.”

After her marriage, Gretchen taught high school Spanish and English for a few years, and then went into the antiques business with her mother-in-law, travelling to Europe every year on buying trips and instilling a life-long love of antiques and travel. For six years, the two women exhibited their treasures up and down the east coast, specializing in oriental porcelain.

After her children were born, raising them became this devoted mother’s top priority. Of course, Gretchen’s children all benefitted from her talent, taking music lessons throughout their childhoods with Gretchen always ready to play duets with them in every recital. But, only her daughter, Peyton, still enjoys playing the piano – and she shags too! Peyton is a graphic designer in Charlotte and did all the design for her mother’s CD cover. Her son, Andy, is currently in law school, also in Charlotte, and Gretchen’s oldest daughter, Morgan, is an attorney in New York City.

Gretchen’s latest musical endeavor, We Do Piano, began four years ago at a country club dance in Charlotte. Jackie O’Neill, the other half of the duo, was introduced to Gretchen by her husband, who had known Jackie years ago in high school. Jackie has been a professional musician for her entire career, and when Tom suggested the two women play together, both were a little hesitant. Finally, they did sit down to play and immediately a connection was made. “We played ‘I Could Have Danced All Night,’ and by the time we were finished, both of us were laughing and crying. It was obvious we had similar styles, and I knew I had met someone who would be a part of my life,” said Gretchen.

Jackie began traveling to the beach for visits with her new friend, and she and Gretchen played at various events together, all the while becoming more convinced that they had something special together. “Finally I decided that it was not too late to do something important with my music,” Gretchen stated. “We contacted a producer who came to my home, and we recorded a CD.” Gretchen and Jackie also performed during Brookgreen’s Cool Summer Evenings last summer and their CD is now for sale in the Brookgreen Gift Shop and other local outlets.

From impromptu jam sessions with neighbors to formal concerts in cocktail attire, Gretchen believes in the power of music, saying, “I’ve mostly played for fun in my life, but I have always believed that if you can do something special, you should share it. Music is emotional; it is heartwarming and fulfilling to see how music connects people. I once played in a nursing home and one resident, who was mostly non-verbal, started singing the words to a song. After it was over, she was silent again, but I knew I had made a connection. Music has brought me life-long friends and more joy than I can say. It is a way of sharing myself.”

About this writer

  • Leslie Moore Leslie Moore is the editor for Strand Media Group. A 25 year resident of Pawleys Island, she is blessed with a life filled with the love of family and friends and satisfying work to do every day.

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