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N.J. Pianist Gladys Selma Dennis, dies at 98

6/6/2013, 11:14 a.m.
Beloved mother, grandmother and pianist Gladys Selma Dennis has died. The former Harlem resident died...
N.J. Pianist Gladys Selma Dennis, dies at 98

Beloved mother, grandmother and pianist Gladys Selma Dennis has died. The former Harlem resident died in New Jersey surrounded by family at the age of 98.

Born on Feb. 26, 1915, in Montgomery, Ala., to Charles and Annie Dennis, Gladys was raised in the Methodist church and educated in Alabama, where she attended the Tuskegee Institute.

As a young woman residing in Montgomery, Dennis earned a living as a seamstress and loved creating school outfits for her children and neighbors. However, music was her true passion, and her artistic flair was best expressed through her abilities on piano and organ. She played a variety of classical and spiritual pieces. Her favorite composer was Tchaikovsky, with Nat King Cole and Mahalia Jackson topping her list of favorite contemporary performers.

Early on she was hired to play choir rehearsals and services at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Montgomery, where Raymond and civil rights icon Rosa Parks were members. She later recalled that the Parks paid her $2 a week to play two choir rehearsals during the week and one service on Sunday.

By the late 1930s, Gladys relocated to Harlem, N.Y., where she met and married Henry R. Willis Sr., who was a tailor by trade. He preceded her in death on Jan. 26, 1972.

It was in Harlem, on West 111th Street, where she raised her five children. She was heavily involved in the Parent Teacher Association and participated in an endless procession of school events, often volunteering to play piano for recitals.

In 1962, the family purchased a home in Teaneck, N.J., where they were among the first Black families in the neighborhood. Always a striver, Dennis returned to the workforce in the mid-1960s and reinvented herself as a clerk and shop steward at the legendary Gimbels department store in Manhattan's Herald Square. In 1981, she concluded her 15-year career in the children's accessories department and retired to her home and ever-expanding garden.

A huge believer in family traditions, she always made sure her family gathered to celebrate holidays and birthdays. Dennis was especially proud of her five grandchildren, who affectionately called her "Nannie." She happily took on a role as their full-time caregiver and enjoyed tickling the ivories for them. She also attended all of her grandchildren's graduations and was extremely proud to witness many of their accomplishments.

Dennis was also an avid coin collector and a wiz at crossword puzzles. In 2008, she proudly voted for Sen. Barack Obama, who would become the first Black president of the United States. In an interview prior to the election, she--a native of the segregated South and the granddaughter of slaves--confided that she never thought should would live to see such an event occur in her lifetime. She would vote for him again in 2012.

Dennis was preceded in death by her parents; brothers Albert, Scott and Charles; and sisters Hattie and Katie. Surviving her are her five children, Reginald C. Dennis Sr. (wife Sylvia), Valerie Willis-Gallop, Henry R. Willis Jr. (wife Leslie), Reba Willis and Winona Brooks (husband Herbert); and her five grandchildren, Reginald C. Dennis Jr., Michael and Anthony Feeney, Scott Gallop and Dawn Tennent. In addition, she is survived by one niece, Annie Collins, and a host of loving relatives.