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Do You Know? Alice Coker

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DYK-Alice-with-FlagBy the time they’ve reached the age of 82, many people have slowed their pace—not Alice Coker. A resident of Montgomery, Alice is a frequent traveler, a member of the choir and vestry at St. James Episcopal Church, a life member of The Salvation Army, and still has a vibrant career. Once nearly disabled by rheumatoid arthritis, she now has nearly full joint motion. “I have a wonderful life,” she says. “If I was any better, you wouldn’t believe it. According to my bloodwork, I should live to be 120.”

What was your childhood like?

I was born in 1933 in Paris, Texas. My mother died when I was 10 years old. She was teaching piano when I was in utero, so it was natural that I was always in music. It was in my DNA. I was in high school band and choir. The music director asked me if I would consider playing the bassoon. I am sure it was because I had studied music all my life. All I really had to do was master the instrument. One of the most interesting events occurred in my junior and senior year; I was the first chair bassoonist for the Texas High School State Orchestra. I was offered six scholarships my junior year. Bassoonists were few in those days. I played bassoon for seven years, including my time in the Paris Community Band. The City of Paris owned two pre-World War II Heckel bassoons, the finest bassoon you can find, and one of those was mine as long as I was in Paris. Paris was a great cotton town back in the late 1800s. There was a lot of wealth from cotton, like there is from oil in many places.  The first Steinway piano store outside of New York was in Paris, Texas. In the 1800s they had a grand opera. Paris Junior College was one of the first junior colleges in the state.

Did you take a scholarship?

I didn’t follow up on any of them, because my dad didn’t want me to leave home. I graduated from Paris Junior College, and my junior year I went to the University of Texas.  I had to leave the Heckel bassoon in Paris, Texas. A good instrument can improve your playing. I had to rent a bassoon at UT. It was such a struggle, and I began to dislike it. So I switched to voice.

DYK-Ground-Breaking-2How did you become involved with The Salvation Army?

My father took me to the market square in Paris, Texas when I was about six years old. There were these people in black, long dresses with big black bonnets on their heads. The men wore black suits. I said, “Daddy, who is that?” His answer I remember to this day, “Honey, that’s The Salvation Army, and they do good for people.” So 30 years ago, when Captains Bonnie and John Montgomery came to Conroe to open The Salvation Army Corps and a homeless shelter, I said to Captain Montgomery that my daddy told me The Salvation Army helped people, and anything I could do, call me. The next week, she called. I am a lifetime council member of The Salvation Army. This is my 30th year of serving on the council.

DYK-Ground-BreakingWe did a lot of great work during the flood of ‘94. I will never forget one woman who came into the distribution center—just bedraggled. She asked, “Do you have a mop or a broom or anything?” We had all of the above and more. She was so appreciative. The next time I saw her, she recognized me and said, “You just saved the day.” Due to all of the volunteers who give of their time, it enables the Army to use over 85 percent of the donations to benefit the people who need help. The Salvation Army fills the gap and will provide for anyone who has a need.

And you still travel?

DYK-BowlAs often as possible. I spend several weeks of my summers at Montreat, North Carolina, volunteering at Sally Jones Pottery at the Montreat Conference Center. I started 20-some-odd years ago. It began as two weeks, and now I stretch it as long as I can. It’s fun to play in the mud, slap that ball of clay on the wheel, and now help others with their own creations. The first bowl I ever made was destined to go in the trash after it flew off the wheel while being trimmed. But it didn’t break internally. My daughter, who is business manager of the Pottery, picked it up and carved the top to make mountains. It was fired, against the instructor’s wishes, glazed with white on the mountains and the instructor chose it as the nicest bowl that summer.

What are your proudest achievements?

DYK-Alice-Sitting-in-ChairI have three great children (one daughter and two sons), six grandchildren, and one great-grandson. I was the founding music director at two Methodist churches. Today, these are two of the largest Methodist churches in the Houston District and have great music programs. I planted the seeds.  The work I have done with The Salvation Army has certainly been ongoing. I am honored to have been a lay director for Emmaus Walk Number 199 (I had worked 11 times and the 12th was chosen lay director).  Emmaus Walk was designed by the Methodist Church to develop spiritual leadership within the church.  I have served on the Hospitality Committee of Young Texas Artists with Susie Pokorski.  We were initial council members of The Salvation Army. When she took over the YTA, with my love for music, I encouraged Susie and worked with her to establish a state-recognized competition.  My 29 years with Shaklee has been a great accomplishment. I have helped a lot of people improve their health and stay “unsick.”

Tell us about your work with Shaklee.

DYK-Alice-laughingIt has been my career since 1986. I have rheumatoid arthritis, and I could not dress myself.  I was challenged to take Shaklee. Nothing helped until I switched to them.  After I went into remission, I attended seminars with leading scientists in the field of nutrition. This knowledge gives me certification to recommend supplements for better health.  It also provides me with a source of current information for the benefit of customers.

You mentioned losing your mother at an early age. How did that affect your life?

DYK-Alice's-MotherI have always been very independent, probably because I was raised by my father. My dad was a big fisherman. I always begged him to go fishing. He said, “I will take you fishing after you learn to tie the hook on the line, put the worm on the hook, clean it, and cook it.” So I did. Before I learned to drive, I had to learn how to change a tire and change the oil. He said, “Well, honey, you are not going to be sitting in the service station when your tire goes flat. You need to learn how to change it.” I am game for anything!

My mother was in the hospital nine months before she died, so she left the home when I was 9. It was kind of downhill for me. That was a long time ago, but it’s something you never forget. I had to go through a lot of prayer and counseling to see that God allowed this in my life—and if he allowed it, I need to look to Him and figure out what it is He wants me to do. It’s the only way I have been able to go from one step to the next. Everybody has negative stuff in their lives, but how do you take a minus and turn it into a plus? I have to get up every day and thank the Lord for a marvelous day.

My brother Charles, who was seven years older, just died a year ago. He told me my mother had instructed my father to marry the RN who had taken care of her during her long illness. So the RN became my stepmother a year after my mother’s death. Poor thing, she didn’t know what she was getting into, except she loved my mother and father. That event gave me a wonderful large family of aunts, uncles, and cousins by the dozens. We still reunion every year.

Was there a crystallizing experience in your life?

DYK-Salvation-Army-HelmetProbably the greatest thing that ever happened to me was in 1975, walking down the halls of First Methodist Church in Conroe with the Rev. Enid Shepherd. She told me, “You are the most negative person I have ever met.” I decided that day no one would ever say that about me again. I still have to watch myself.

And finally I found Psalms 50. It says—this is Alice’s translation—“Thanksgiving is the sacrifice that honors me, and I will save all who obey. Call upon Me in the day of trouble, and I shall rescue you.” I said I will do whatever comes my way from now on with thanksgiving. An attitude of gratitude works.

On my 85th birthday I am thinking of putting an ad in the paper that says, “If this were an obituary and you would come to my last celebration service, this is your invitation to join me alive and well at a party that I can also enjoy.”

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