Bangor’s ‘Piano Mann’ nears 100

Posted May 04, 2009, at 7:21 p.m.

It didn’t take long for Bernard “Doc” Mann to make his way to a familiar perch in the Hammond Street Senior Center in Bangor.

Dressed sharply in a shirt, tie and jacket, Mann sat down at the ebony bench, stretched his slender fingers and deftly tuned out dozens of admirers who gathered around. In seconds, those fingers found their home, striking the piano keys in front of him with the dexterous grace of a much younger man.

It’s not often a man gets to lead a rendition of “Happy Birthday” on his own 100th birthday, or almost 100th birthday as was the case Monday. In just over a month, Mann, a Bangor native and longtime schoolteacher, will reach a milestone most never dream of. To put it in perspective, the “Happy Birthday” song is only 16 years older than Mann.

His friends at the senior center couldn’t resist celebrating Mann’s birthday a little early.

Kathy Bernier, executive director of the downtown gathering place for the area’s elderly, organized Monday’s party to honor a man she called a treasure of the senior center and of the Queen City.

It only made sense to gather around the piano, where Mann is perhaps most comfortable.

“I’ve been listening to him play for the last 10 years and, at one point, I figured out that he always plays the same songs,” Bernier said, recalling the days when Mann first became a member of the senior center as a spry 89-year-old. “So I asked him about the order one day to test my own memory. And he said, ‘I don’t know. I just play.’”

The crowd laughed, prompting Mann to add: “When I can’t go to sleep at night, I play them in my head.”

Born before World War I, Mann graduated from Bangor High School and then from the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts before returning to his hometown. For more than four decades, he taught Latin and French at the former Garland Street Junior High School (now the William S. Cohen School) and later at Bangor High School. He is a longtime member of St. John Catholic Church and was been involved in area Boy Scout troops.

A man who has lived a remarkably full life, Mann found a purpose in his later years through the Hammond Street Senior Center and through music.

He plays recognizable songs from forgotten times, such as “The Swanee River” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He moves seamlessly from one song to the next, a medley of jaunty tunes and solemn ballads. Once he gets started, it’s hard for him to stop.

When he does stop, Mann is as quick with his wit as he is on the piano.

Asked by Bernier to share some stories, Mann joked, “So many things have happened in 100 years, where do you want me to begin? I can’t tell you everything.”

Then he indulged the crowd anyway.

He talked about meeting his wife, Mary, when they were both schoolteachers in the 1930s. He asked her to lunch one day and that was it. “There is a mystery of love we can’t explain,” Mann said. Mary Mann passed away in 1994 at the age of 80.

He talked about his nickname. When Mann was a Boy Scout many years ago, he always carried a black medical bag that he borrowed from a relative who was a doctor. “All the other kids would say, ‘Here comes Doc with his bag,’” he said. The name stuck.

He talked of chess, another passion that has enriched his life through the years.

Ron Brody, who learned the game from Mann, now plays weekly games with him at a space in the senior center known as “Chessnut Corner.”

“He takes it seriously and he shows no mercy,” Brody said of his chess partner, then added poignantly, “I feel blessed that he takes time every week to play with me.”

Others were effusive in their praise of Mann, including Bangor Mayor Gerry Palmer, who presented a city proclamation, and Gov. John Baldacci, who sent a letter that Mann read aloud.

While others spoke of Mann’s exceptional qualities, the soon-to-be centenarian said he’s no different from millions of others.

“Everyone is exceptional in their own way,” he said. “I’m just one of ’em, I guess.”

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