by Constance Garcia-Barrio
Age and weight are mere numbers, one hears, but for Patricia Woods Sellers, they are most significant. At 87 years old and 95 pounds, Sellers, of Oreland, has launched a career as a street musician.
Her Saturday performances outside Kilian’s Hardware Store have been eight decades in the making. “I started studying piano at age 7, and I had a wonderful teacher,” said Sellers, whose ballads, show tunes and Beethoven melodies embroider the hum of traffic.
Her parents got her a spinet at first, but she wanted a baby grand. “The baby grand’s a better instrument, and its longer strings mean a richer tone,” she said. “Every piano has a different feel. That’s why someone like Elton John takes his own piano on the road.”
After some wrangling, Pat and her parents hammered out a truce: If Pat did well, they would buy her a baby grand. They might have foreseen the outcome, given her attraction to keyboards. “When I was a little girl, my parents had friends who owned a pump organ,” she said. “I would play it when they were trying to visit. It would drive them crazy.” Thanks to Sellers’ progress on the spinet, the family home in Erdenheim soon had a baby grand.
The precision of music and science may be in Pat’s DNA and give her an edge. Her father, Stanley Woods, was a mechanical engineer with the Teleflex Company, a manufacturer of medical devices. He and his four sisters all sang and played the piano. “On Sunday afternoons they got together and sang and played. That’s what you did on Sundays then; you had a sing-sing,” said Pat, an only child.
“My father also repaired antique clocks in his spare time. He restored a 200-year-old clock that David Rittenhouse made.” Rittenhouse (1732-1796), an astronomer, inventor and surveyor, made the clock in 1773, but it hadn’t run in 35 years, Pat recalled.
That storied timepiece remains on display at Drexel Institute, but other cherished parts of her past have vanished. “When I was growing up, we never locked the doors,” Pat said. “My mother used to play bridge at Alden Park Manor on Wednesdays. That was the day the farmer would come to our house, enter through the unlocked door and leave the produce my mother had ordered in the refrigerator. Then he would pick up her list for the following week.”
By her 20s, Pat had married and begun working at an engineering firm, Milton Roy, which makes products to treat water and wastewater. “I was a drafting clerk and took care of the blueprints,” said Sellers, who also played tricks on the engineers. “I might tell one of them that the president of the company wanted to see him immediately, but it wasn’t so. It was a wonderful group. We liked each other and got along.”
Pat continued playing the piano during those years.
She devoted herself solely to homemaking after the birth of a son, Scott, in 1955 and then her daughter, Nina, in 1965. Change blindsided her some years later when her marriage ended. “I had to scramble, work, be both mother and father to my children,” she said. “It was a shock. My faith in God pulled me through, and my music. Some people turn to drugs or alcohol, but music is good for the soul. Think about how you feel after you sing a hymn in church,” (Pat attended St. Thomas’ Church in Whitemarsh for many years.)
As a single mother, Pat worked at a clothing store called The Nana as well as at the Depot restaurant in Chestnut Hill and a veterinarian’s office, but playing the piano at the Philadelphia Cricket Club became her mainstay. “I started working there in 1982,” she said. “I enjoyed playing at birthday parties where people were turning 100. It was good to see the guest of honor still smiling and perking along.”
The axe fell in 2011. “I lost my job at the Philadelphia Cricket Club after 27 years when new management let go of many long-time employees,” said Pat, who had both liked and depended on her job there. “In time, I had to sell my old piano.”
Many older Philadelphians face such challenges, according to Lydia Hernandez Velez, deputy director of the Mayor’s Commission on Services to the Aging. “Some seniors on fixed incomes need employment to make ends meet,” Hernandez Velez said. “We help them find jobs, but there’s a long waiting list.”
Allen Glicksman, Ph.D., director of research and evaluation at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, notes that almost 26 percent of local seniors have incomes below the poverty line.
Pat took matters into her own hands. “I wasn’t going to wait for Publishers Clearinghouse to knock on my door with a jackpot,” she said. She approached Russ Goudy Jr. of Kilian’s Hardware and told him that she could play a keyboard outside the store if she had electricity. “He told me ‘Sure,’ that I could use his power,” Pat said.
Five weeks into her Saturday afternoon performances at Kilian’s, Pat, who still plays for private parties, hopes to land more Chestnut Hill gigs. Given her philosophy, one can’t doubt that she will: “The secret to living well is never, never give up, and always have an objective in life.”