Inspiring Okeechobee: Catherine Jeffers wants to be remembered for more than music

OKEECHOBEE — Catherine Jeffers was born and raised in Fort Pierce, but she has been in Okeechobee so long most people think she was born here, she said. Her family lived in White City until she was five years old, and in her first year of school, she had to ride the bus. She was a tiny, dainty little thing, and most of the other children on the bus were older so she was a novelty. They liked to sit her on their laps and show her things out the window. They thought they were just playing with her, but she was terrified of that bus and the whole situation, she said. The following year, her parents decided it was time to move to town so she could walk to school.

At first, they lived in a little apartment upstairs over a family’s home. The stairs were very narrow and high — almost straight up! This was back in the roller skating days, and she could roller skate to school with her friend next door when she was only seven, and she loved it.

Most people know Catherine Jeffers for her music, either teaching piano or playing at weddings or funerals, but she has also taught Sunday School for many years. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

When she got older, her father decided to build a house. He was working in construction for the county road department at the time, and he worked all day and built the house in the evenings before dark. He started with one big room, and they lived in that room for about a year and a half before he added a small kitchen on the side. At that time, very few people had indoor plumbing in Fort Pierce. He added a small bedroom and a porch. Piece by piece, it became a pretty nice little house, she said.

When she was about 14, the war started, and overnight, her school pretty much became an all girls school. Immediately, Fort Pierce became almost a militarized town. It started with the base taking the beach away from the civilians, and everything changed. There could be no activities after about 5 p.m. You just didn’t go anywhere. There could be no street lights, and everyone painted the top half of their cars’ headlights black so you had just enough light to see by but not enough to be seen off shore by the German U-boats.

“It was nothing to find a rubber raft pulled up on the beach, and we knew they had come in after dark from the U-boats that were spotted off the coast a lot of times,” she said.

The men who weren’t drafted into the service were usually air raid wardens, and her father was no exception. They had drills two or three times a week, and her dad would leave to patrol the streets, checking to be sure everyone was safe. They checked all the houses and cars, and then rang the big siren, and it would be over. She said she wasn’t necessarily frightened, but every time an airplane flew overhead, she would tense up, because you never knew who it would be. Their most specific danger was from the U-boats off shore though.

On the weekends, Fort Pierce was solid Navy, a sea of white uniforms, and after church on Sunday everyone took sailors home for lunch.

“Our base was the last base before they went wherever they went — the jumping off place, and sometimes we would take four or five of them home with us, just whoever was there, you’d gather them up. You didn’t fear they were going to hurt anybody because they just weren’t,” she said.

A lot of girls married servicemen, but Mrs. Jeffers married a boy she grew up with, Lloyd, who was a farmer. They had three children — two boys and one girl. She remembers going out to check on their first crop of tomatoes one Sunday afternoon. She was pregnant, and there was a storm coming in. Back then, hurricanes were a yearly thing, not just now and then like they are now, she said. As she was headed back to the house, the dike broke around the field, and the water rushed in and was up to her knees before she could even blink. Their crops were destroyed. They had a lot of difficult years, but they worked through them together.

Although she had always dreamed of becoming a surgeon, it was not to be. Her family was not financially able to manage that so instead, she focused on taking every business course she could and took jobs in the business world.

Music has always been a big part of her life. When she was just a toddler, she would sit at the kitchen table, and tap her fingers on the table, playing an imaginary piano, sometimes singing along while she played. Her parents could often tell what she was playing by the rhythm of the tapping, she said. Her parents knew music was inside of her and would find a way out somehow, so her father found an old piano for $25 and bought it for her, and he built her a piano bench which she still has now. She said when she dies it better not end up at Faith Farm.

When she was about eight years old, they heard about a German music teacher a few blocks from her home. She taught guitar, piano, voice, etc. So, her family took her to Mrs. Alexander to learn piano, and she began lessons. She said she would take the books home and would play her assignments but then would keep going in the books.

She took lessons for about a year, and one day the teacher told her she wanted to speak to her mother. Mrs. Jeffers was very nervous, thinking she had done something wrong, but her teacher reassured her, so she gave her mother the message, and she came to talk to the teacher. Mrs. Alexander told her mother she knew it was hard for them to pay for lessons and really, she did not need them anymore. The music was there. She just needed the opportunity to practice and maybe a little help now and then. She said, “you pay for her music and let her come here to play, and I will guide her.

“They had a house full of grand pianos, and it was pure Heaven to go there to play,” Mrs. Jeffers said. So, that was the end of her formal music training.

She wanted to learn guitar, but her hands were too small so she learned the steel guitar instead and played all through high school. When she was 13, she became the church pianist, and she was so small, her father had to attach pieces of lumber to the pedals of the piano so she could reach them. She played at her first funeral when she was about 14, and it was for a young marine who she had a crush on. His mother asked her to play because she said he always loved to hear her play. It was overwhelming, but she made it through it, she said.

Years later, people began asking her to give piano lessons, and at first, she was hesitant because, she does not have a degree in music, and she thought that was important for a teacher, but as time went on, she began to reconsider.

“When I first started teaching, I had 20 students before I could turn around twice,” she laughed. Since that time, she has taught so many people to play that she cannot even begin to count them, at least a hundred she said, maybe more, probably more. She has taught people of all ages. She has even taught multiple generations from the same family. Everywhere she goes, she sees people she has taught or whose children she has taught.

Most people know Mrs. Jeffers for her music, either teaching piano or playing at weddings or funerals, but what is not as commonly known is she has taught a Sunday School class for many years. Many of the girls she has taught have grown up and gone on to become teachers themselves, she said, and it is a joy to watch them, but for her 90th birthday, she received a birthday card from a girl who wasn’t able to come but who sent the card with someone else. She had made the card herself, and it said, “I wanted you to know, on your birthday, that years ago in your class what it meant to me that you nurtured me and you mentored me so much and had I not been in your class I would not know who Jesus is. I would never have been saved had I not been in your class.” Although Mrs. Jeffers believes her music is important, this is what she wants to be remembered for.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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