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  • Cynthia Henry

Cellist recalls early days of Van Cliburn piano competition at TCU

Mary Neita Werner was destined to become a great musician. Her mother, Vivian Harder Johnson, was a highly-sought piano teacher in Fort Worth.

“My mother was the finest keyboard person in this town, and I’m not saying that because she was my mother – she was,” said Mary Neita. “Everybody in town studied with Mother. And I could play the piano, but I didn’t get her talent.”

You might ask where her musical talent originated.

“I fell into it,” she said. “I was in art class and they were making things out of clay — making a mess.”

Suddenly Paschal High principal O.D. Wyatt came over the loudspeaker and said, “The music teacher is in the auditorium. If any of your students would like to go in and talk to her, please excuse them at this time.”

“And I hated what I was doing,” Mary Neita said, “so I got in there. Well, this lady looked me up and down and said, ‘Well, you’re a pretty good-sized girl. Why don’t you play the cello?’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’”

After the teacher let her play with the cello a few minutes, she was dismissed. Mary Neita walked home and told her mother all about it.

“She said nobody else will play it,” Mary Neita relayed to her mother. “And Mother said, ‘Do you want to try?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think I will.’”

It just so happened that Vivian was giving piano lessons to the daughter of one of TCU’s finest cellists at that time. The two musicians agreed to teach each other’s child. They just needed to acquire a cello for Mary Neita to play. That was more difficult than one would think.

“Back in the early days of Fort Worth, they didn’t have fine arts,” she said. “Nobody knew what fine arts was. If they saw somebody with a fiddle, they knew they were going to play for a square dance, but nobody knew the cello.”

So the family ordered a cello from Chicago. It was built in 1746 — it was nearly 200 years old when Mary Neita received it.

“It had a beautiful sound to it,” she reminisced. “But, again, nobody in the city of Fort Worth wanted to play it.”

And that’s precisely why Mary Neita decided to play the cello. Not because she enjoyed it, but because she knew it was her opportunity to shine.

Practicing the cello took great dedication. She toted the rather bulky instrument to and from school each day, and even took it on the city bus when traveling to take lessons.

“I always felt awkward because it was hard to carry the thing. I was always stumbling. There was a Hemphill bus, it takes you right down by St. John’s Hospital. And I’d walk down there and get on that bus and then get off on Henderson — three doors from the school.”

“I was so afraid somebody was going to hit it with their knee or something. The wood part on the top wasn’t very thick. You could crack it real easily. It was brittle,” she said.

Even at 92, Mary Neita can vividly recall a scene near her school back in 1941.

“One day, there were trucks that drove down South Henderson from the school, loaded with the kids that had the paper routes with the Star-Telegram. They were in the back, and they were throwing them in the yards. It said ‘Extra, Extra, Read all about it! Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor!’ That day, everything came to a dead stop.”

That week, Mary Neita said everyone went to the movies. It was the only opportunity the general public had to see a newsreel.

“Hardly anybody had TV. We didn’t know what a TV was,” she said.

It may have been the anxiety of the times that kept Mary Neita from committing to the cello. She recalled taking “toe dancing” lessons as well. But when auditioning to work for a Dallas production company, she realized she didn’t like performing on stage by herself.

“Everybody in the theatre stopped what they were doing to watch. I was like, ‘Oh Lord give me strength.’ But I did my dance perfectly all by myself.”

She got the part, but she didn’t take it.

“I said to myself, ‘Okay so now you’ve done that, check that off of your list.’”

That’s when Mary Neita decided to really put her energy into learning the cello.

“I could play the piano, but not like my mother. And I could toe dance, but not like my teacher. But when I played the cello, I got to be first chair,” she said.

Being the best cellist in school landed her a four-year scholarship at Texas Christian University. She and a few other band members would form units and play garden parties and tea parties for extra spending money.

“I never loved (the cello). It’s heavy, it’s big, it’s awkward, it wears you out,” she said. “But I played that cello. I kept the four-year scholarship. My parents never paid one cent to that school.”

After graduation, she taught music in the Houston school district briefly before returning to Fort Worth, where she met her husband, Elden, who was also a teacher. They moved to Waco for a year or two, but Fort Worth kept calling them back home.

Mary Neita received an invitation to perform with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Playing with them allowed her to keep her foot in the door after her first child was born, she said.

Because she was still well respected within the TCU fine arts department, she had a unique opportunity every year when the university hosted the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. She played in the orchestra that accompanied the pianists for several years.

Van Cliburn was a Texas native who was internationally recognized as a musical genius by age 14.

“When they started the Van Cliburn concert series, they went to look for students all around the world who were excellent piano students. They offered them an opportunity to play for Van Cliburn and a huge audience that included important people that came from around the world, if you can imagine that. And that was a big deal! They came from everywhere — all different countries. Some of them couldn’t even speak English and performed in the contest. It was quite a thing for Fort Worth to do that. And it was a big thing for TCU to do it. It put us on the map.”

She recalls meeting Van Cliburn on more than one occasion.

“He was just a very sweet man and so polite and oh so talented. At that time, he was just a very young man, maybe 18, 19, 20 years old. He was the best the world had at that time,” said Mary Neita.

The last year she played in that orchestra was the year she gave birth to her second child, Ruth, in 1963. Of course, Mary Neita’s mother taught Ruth how to play the piano. “But I think that his (Van Cliburn’s) exposure to her in the womb was that she became a great musician,” she added.

Mary Neita taught school intermittently while raising their two children. The family settled in the Wedgewood neighborhood of Fort Worth.

Today, Mary Neita lives at The Grandview of Chisholm Trail. The senior living community is located in southwestern Fort Worth. She no longer has her cello, but she plays the piano from time to time.

She always looks forward to listening to area musicians when they perform at The Grandview. When she’s not conversing with fellow residents in the garden, she enjoys playing dominoes and bingo in the activity room. She said there’s nothing she doesn’t love about the community – even the food is top notch.

Her children, Ruth and James, live close by, and she’s happy to still be in Fort Worth, where she has so many beautiful memories.

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