By Carolyn Myers
Since Leigh Atkinson Gage was first introduced to the piano and started taking lessons at seven years old, she has made a true friend of the instrument, continuing with lessons through the years and playing for her church, social events and especially for her own enjoyment or comfort.
Music has carried Leigh over the rolling waters of everyday living and has been the buoy she could cling to when tragedy washed over her soul.
Back on Oct. 6, 1949, according to an historical journal, members of the Thursday Music Club in Foreman were concerned that Mrs. Elizabeth Trimble Atkinson, a member who lived across the street from where the club was meeting that week, wasn’t in attendance.
The reason for the absence was that Mrs. Atkinson had been taken to the emergency room where she was operated on to remove a ruptured appendix. Three days later on a Sunday, a baby daughter, Leigh, was born. Mother and daughter fared well in the hospital and were soon released to go on about their lives and continue attending the music club.
Leigh’s father, William Herron Atkinson, worked in the hardware store in Foreman owned by his father and uncle until draught and the timber situation made it almost impossible for more than one family to live on the proceeds from the store. When daughter Leigh was about five, William Atkinson decided to move with his family to Navasota, Texas, where he again went to work in a hardware store. When the elder Mr. Atkinson in Foreman died, William was needed to help run the store there; he moved his family back to Foreman. After a few years William bought a grocery store from Marion Crank.
Leigh said, “When we first bought the store we had feed and kerosene oil with the pump and everything. The Reeds, Dennis and Ms. Truba, Dr. Wayne Reeds’s parents, were the butchers working there so Dr. Reed and I grew up together in the store,” she said, with a laugh.
Leigh had a sister, Suzanne, who was 10 years older.
“When I was in the first grade, Susie was a senior, so it was almost like being an only child. I was pretty spoiled, I’m sure,” she said, chuckling.
Leigh began taking piano lessons from Barbara Madison Pullen, Charles Pullen’s wife. “Ms. Barbara” developed cancer when Leigh was in the third grade. Leigh then became the student of Judy Hawkins, with whom she studied for four years until “Ms. Judy” said she needed to find a different teacher who could help her advance more. Leigh went on to become the student of Mrs. H.E. Tye in Texarkana, originally from Ashdown.
“Mrs. Tye had just retired from teaching at Texarkana College and she was taking students so I took piano from her those last four years – 8th through 12th grades – and got a piano scholarship to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville,” Leigh said.
That only lasted a year because the young girl found that college life had lots to offer and she couldn’t make time to “sit on that bench for four hours a day.” She changed her major to music education until the counselors explained to her that, with that focus, she would have to teach high school students. Leigh knew she did not want to teach in high school so she changed her major again to elementary education.
After college graduation, she and Kelly Gage married. Kelly had a degree in agriculture and became a county agent. The young couple lived in Carlisle for six years. Leigh taught school and Kelly was the county agent; both their children were born there. Then they lived in Malvern for a year before coming to Little River County where Kelly had been hired as the county agent and Leigh taught elementary school in Foreman. They had a nice home and raised two children, Catherine and Trey. Life was lovely. Then tragedy struck.
Leigh was at home one October night in 1992 working on some lesson plans and had the phone turned off so it wouldn’t wake her husband and son if it happened to ring. Catherine, 19, and another local girl were out together in her car. In the silence of the room Leigh heard Catherine’s voice say, “Oh, Mama…” and to Leigh it sounded as if Catherine was in bad trouble and needed her mother’s help. In a short while, Leigh heard the Air Life helicopter in the sky. When her father knocked on the door to tell them there had been a wreck, that was all he would say. But Leigh already knew something was terribly wrong. When she got to the wreck, Catherine had died.
Family members and friends were devastated. The community surrounded them with loving support. But Fate wasn’t quite through with Leigh yet. After Catherine’s funeral, the Gage family fell apart, as is so often the case when death has taken a child. In June 1993, Kelly left their home, separating from Leigh; in November, the week before Thanksgiving, their divorce was final; and the following weekend, Leigh’s father died suddenly from a heart attack.
Leigh found it almost impossible to get out of bed and continue going to work. Sometimes she simply couldn’t make her body obey and her mind focus, no matter how hard she tried. It got to the point that almost all she could do was walk around through the cemetery over and over, nearly every day, picking up flowers that had been blown here and there, and praying. Through all the pain and the sadness, Leigh’s faith in God remained strong. She knew he would help her get through it all.
During this almost unbearable grief, the Foreman school administration and faculty were understanding of Leigh’s plight. She eventually came to realize that playing music privately to pour out her grief and sadness, playing music for others to enjoy, and teaching school children an appreciation of music should remain her focus in life.
In addition to playing the piano for her church, Leigh is active in the Thursday Music Club, which has, by requirement, the same number of members, 20, as it did when Leigh’s mother and grandmother were active members. Since her retirement Leigh fills in at the piano or the organ for other churches whose organist is out for a Sunday or so. She also goes with a group from Wade’s Chapel to sing at a local nursing home each month. And Pinecrest Retirement Center residents are always delighted when Leigh come to play the wonderful songs from musicals, plays and movies that they love and appreciate.
Leigh said that during her times of distress when she didn’t want to do anything, God had spoken to her in that quiet way, prodding her to use her talent for others. She kept putting him off.
She explained, “After about six months, God said, ‘I didn’t give you this talent to sit on it. You go use that talent or I will take it away.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I will, because I don’t want you to take it away, Lord.’”
She has been keeping that promise.
When Leigh’s mother had a stroke in 2002, Leigh moved in with her mother to take care of her. “I moved in with her so she wouldn’t have to try to do anything and I stayed with her until her last breath. I was working every day and it was challenging but I wouldn’t take anything for the opportunity to have had my mother that long. We became truly best friends.”
She continued, “It helped us both in dealing with Catherine’s and my daddy’s death. When I talk about my daughter now, I can’t be depressed because I know she’s there in the light and someday I’ll be there with her, too.”