WASHINGTON — Nancy Poore Tufts marched for women’s suffrage when she was 7, lived in China and the Philippines as a girl and drove ambulances and streetcars in Washington during World War II.
She was best known, however, as a church organist and choir director who founded Washington’s first handbell-ringing group in 1954 – and as the source of fresh bamboo that was fed to the pandas at the National Zoo. She was 102 when she died Sept. 16 of congestive heart failure at Tulip Hill Farm, her home in Fort Washington, Md. A friend, Charles Davidson, confirmed her death.
A skilled pianist, organist and singer with three degrees in music, Mrs. Tufts spent more than 60 years as the music director at several Washington area churches. She often presented recitals and continued to work as an organist and choir director into her 90s.
In 1952, Mrs. Tufts ordered a set of 14 bells from the Whitechapel foundry in England after hearing a group of bell ringers in Boston.
“I thought that it was so beautiful,” she said in a video for the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, “and it would be such a splendid activity to add to my church program, because it is especially good for children – or for all people from 9 to 90.”
It took two years for the bells, each tuned to a different musical tone, to arrive in Washington. Within weeks, Mrs. Tufts trained a group of bell ringers and staged a holiday concert.
For the next 33 years, she led the Potomac English Handbell Ringers in performances throughout the region, including frequent performances at Washington National Cathedral, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and countless convalescent centers and retirement homes.
She led her groups on six tours to England, where the art of handbell ringing began, and often performed at the London foundry where her bells were made. In 1971, Mrs. Tufts and her bell ringers participated in events surrounding the opening of the Kennedy Center, and for 17 consecutive years, they donned period costumes to ring in the new year at Colonial Williamsburg.
She and her group twice set world records for continuous bell ringing, topping out at 45 hours in 1981.
Mrs. Tufts wrote “The Art of Handbell Ringing” in the early 1960s and became a nationally recognized figure in the field. She arranged hundreds of pieces of music, from classical works to traditional folk songs, for handbell groups, launched competitions for composers and was a past president of what is now called the Handbell Musicians of America.
When Mrs. Tufts retired in 1987, her collection of bells had grown to contain nearly 80. Hundreds of people, most of them beginning as children, had performed in her groups.
“She’s been a great model to all of us,” Dixon Bell, who joined the Potomac bell ringers in 1964 at age 14, told The Washington Post in 2000. “She introduced us to classical music, fine art and feminism. She’s a real Renaissance woman.”
Nancy Narcissa Poore was born July 6, 1910, in London. Her father was a physician with the U.S. Army, and the family lived in the Philippines and China when Mrs. Tufts was a girl.
While living in Columbia, S.C., during World War I, she marched with her mother for women’s voting rights. The family came to Fort Washington in the 1920s.
Mrs. Tufts received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. She studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and received a second master’s degree, in sacred music, from Union Theological Seminary in New York in the 1930s.
After returning to Washington, she taught in private schools, including the Madeira School in McLean, Va., and she was the choir director and organist at Georgetown Presbyterian Church, Western Presbyterian Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Washington. She retired in her early 90s after more than 25 years as music director of Second Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Va.
Her husband of 35 years, William O. Tufts, who was also a church organist and music teacher, died in 1976. They had no children.
During World War II, Mrs. Tufts drove an ambulance and was, by her account, “the first female streetcar driver in Washington.”
In 1939, Mrs. Tufts settled at Tulip Hill Farm, overlooking the Potomac in Prince George’s County. Last year, county police officers found the property overgrown and worked to trim weeds and trees and generally looked after the still-feisty centenarian.
After her family’s Asian sojourns, Mrs. Tufts’ mother brought back many mementos, including bamboo seeds, which were planted at Tulip Hill. Decades later, after the National Zoo acquired its first pandas, there was concern about where to obtain a supply of fresh bamboo, the primary food of pandas.
“I saw that the bamboo was just taking over this place,” Mrs. Tufts told the Chicago Tribune in 2001, “so I called or wrote them and offered for them to come down.”
Each Monday, workers from the zoo arrived at her house to harvest about 150 to 200 bamboo stalks.
In 2000, Mrs. Tufts received a Christmas card, with photographs of the pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.
A note read, “Thank you, Mrs. Tufts, for your delicious bamboo.”