Published: March 2, 2021
Robert Whitman Beck, 86, has finished his life's work, which he defined as "bringing the joy of music into people's hearts, homes, schools, and churches". In the early morning of February 27, 2021, he laid down his burden, and marched in with all that number of saints.
Robert spent most of his adult years as owner/manager of Ryan Piano Company in downtown Florence, his platform for spreading joy, kindness, and good cheer to all who crossed his threshold. In addition to selling pianos and other musical instruments, sheet music and recordings, he voluntarily became the unofficial ticket outlet for concerts, plays, and all kinds of community arts events.
Robert was born at home on Main Street in Tuscumbia, the son of Thomas Tilden Beck, Jr., and Lillian Elvira Menne Beck. He was welcomed by an older sister and brother, Dolores (Malcolm Stanley), and Thomas Tilden Beck III (Frances Bobo), all of whom have pre-deceased him. Later, he welcomed younger brother Michael Dale (Carolyn), who live in Florence. Within weeks of his September 24, 1934 birth, his mother had enrolled him in the Cradle Roll at First Baptist Church, Tuscumbia. His father was a gifted tinsmith, which enabled the family to be among the first to have central heat and air in their home.
Robert grew up in Tuscumbia, surrounded by grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a community that nurtured him and left a lasting imprint.
At an early age, he began to teach himself to play piano. He loved his years in the public school system. He participated in choral groups in school and church. A 1952 graduate of Deshler High School, in his senior year he was class president, editor of the annual, and valedictorian. In 1957, he graduated cum laude from Florence State College.
At age 20, Robert was handed the keys to First Baptist, Tuscumbia, organ by the retiring organist. He served as church organist at First Baptist for 45 years. One of his proudest achievements was leading the campaign to raise funds for a new pipe organ for the church. He was primary designer of the Reuters pipe organ, installed in 1970 under his supervision. During his career, he played at venues all over North Alabama for countless weddings, funerals, celebrations of all kinds. He also served as organist in Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches. In addition to his organ skills, he was in high demand throughout the Shoals area as a pianist.
In 1966, Robert married Margaret Noël Morse. Together, they brought into the world Margaret Lillian and Elizabeth Ryan. Margaret (David Kammerer) now lives in New Canaan, Connecticut, with her children, Jackson Beck Dempsey and Lillian Tallulah Dempsey. Elizabeth lives in Queretero, Mexico, with her children Henry Whitman George and Elena Catherine George. Her husband, Mark Henry George, recently died. Robert loved and supported his family with intense passion and gentleness.
Robert was very involved with community arts organizations. He served for many years as board member and treasurer of Muscle Shoals Concerts. He also loved being onstage in Florence Summer Theatre musicals, notably Camelot, Annie, Man of La Mancha, and Music Man.
A consummate host, Robert and his family hosted the preview party for the first W. C. Handy Music Festival at their home on Wood Avenue in Florence.
Robert loved to set the table, make desserts, welcome people into the family home, offering friendship, music, genuine interest, and great food. He was also an avid amateur photographer.
He was widely known and sought after for his storytelling. A master of the punch line, his timing was impeccable. He loved writing limericks in honor of friends on special occasions. He well understood the connection between good health and laughter.
In each place he lived, Robert planted a beautiful garden, which he tended with deep love and long hours. He had a strong interest in historic preservation. After moving to Lelia Street in Florence, he was instrumental in establishing the College Place Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Alabama Historic Commission.
Robert's daughter, Margaret, listed life lessons she learned from her daddy, including "Support strong women. Support music and the arts and nurture your own creativity. Don't be racist or sexist or homophobic. Eat lots of desserts".
Also left to cherish his memory are cousins, nieces, nephews of multiple generations; his Morse inlaws; and a huge crowd of friends.
Anyone who wishes to make a contribution in Robert's memory may consider Episcopal Relief and Development Fund, Equal Justice Initiative, Alabama Public Radio, or Sierra Club.
The family wishes to thank the many people who eased Robert's path in his declining years, including The Very Rev. Dr. Andy Keyse; College Place neighborhood; Martha Johnson; Shoals Area Music Teachers Association; Betsy Rainer; Choirettes; Trinity Episcopal Church Choir; piano students and families, past and present; Florence Group; Eldercare, especially Dee Mussleman, Annetta Allen Cole, and Susie Russell; Amedisys Home Health Care nurses and therapists; staffs of Helen Keller Hospital and Mitchell Hollingsworth Rehab; Dr. William Hobbs; Dr. David Anakwenze; Dr. Bonnie Atkinson; Dr. Lynn Ridgeway; Dr. Ty Ashley.
Due to Covid travel and meeting restrictions, no service is planned at this time.
Services were entrusted to Elkins Funeral Home. You're invited to leave online condolences at www.elkinsfuneralhome.com.