The pandemic, that is, which robbed everyone of something. Over 610,000 Americans (and counting) lost everything — their lives — due to COVID. And though Lois Gruis, who died at age 93 on Jan. 21, 2021, did not necessarily succumb as a direct result of COVID, the virus nevertheless cheated her out of a full-fledged farewell, which a person who spent over 70 years teaching kids surely deserves.
While a service for Lois took place, it’s guaranteed dozens more would have paid their respects in person had attendance not been limited. After all, Lois was a weekly presence in the lives of well over 1,000 music students for large chunks of their formative years since she first began teaching piano lessons in the late 1940s.
Whether in the Iowa towns of Sioux City, Orange City, Sibley and Sheldon, or the Minnesota hamlets of Worthington and Rushmore, Lois spent countless hours seated next to aspiring pianists and organists between the ages of 4 to 18.
“Lois will pound,” she sometimes declared while trying to force a student to stick with a steady beat — and pound she would, employing a pencil against the wood of her spinet.
Driven by a desire to instill in her students not only keyboard skills but also the same passion for music she deeply harbored, Lois patiently and persistently instructed.
She excelled at teaching the fundamentals but was able to take higher achievers to the next level. A church musician/organist herself, Lois prioritized hymn playing for her piano and organ students — and she believed in performing, urging participation in recitals, National Federation of Music Clubs contests, Worthington Piano Teachers Association festivals and Christmas gigs at Pioneer Village.
Motivation came in the form of treats earned by a magical “points” system Lois tracked in students’ lesson notebooks.
“Got 15 orange,” she’d say at lesson’s end, and the eager kid could then grab a handful of gummy bears, small cookies or a candy cane from glass jars in her kitchen cupboard labeled with certain point values.
One word encapsulating Lois is “intrepid.” Knowing Lois in the moment, it wasn’t possible to immediately detect all the obstacles she’d faced in her life, ranging from time as a divorced single parent to being an adult college student to overcoming numerous health issues to worrying about a beloved grandchild with unique health issues, who did indeed precede her in death.
But Lois was the last person to ever back down or give up. Could a teenaged piano student whose high school schedule only allowed for a 9:30 p.m. lesson be accommodated? You bet — and if the student didn’t pull the plug, the lesson might last past 10:30 p.m.
Blizzard conditions prevailing on the day of a contest in Sheldon or recital in Rushmore? Drive carefully and get to the church on time, because — make no mistake — Lois would be there long before everyone else, ready to greet each attendee with a warm, red-lipped smile and clear “I’m so glad to see you.”
A hallmark of Lois was her acceptance of all comers. She never turned down a potential student if she could possibly squeeze one in, and her proteges came from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. From each one she demanded similar attentiveness and discipline; it was impossible to tell her “no” when it came to agreeing to music festival or recital participation.
Several families whose children Lois taught rallied to purchase a bench, located on the western side of Olson Park, in her memory. No keyboard is nearby, but it’s a fitting memorial to one who spent so many hours of her life perched at a bench, pouring out her heart and skill into future generations.
Her music lives on.