A song in her heart: Clara Poteat celebrates 75 years in the choir

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Katie Scarvey
Clara Hendrix Poteat’s dining room at her Majolica Road home features an old upright piano with a Broadman hymnal propped in the music holder, as well as a score for Handel’s Messiah.
They’re not for show, either. Clara has been singing for most of her 89 years, including 75 years with the choir at Enon Baptist Church, which held a special service in her honor Nov. 16.
“I think she’s fairly remarkable,” says Kendal Mobley, pastor at Enon Baptist.
“Music has always been my life,” says Clara, who is also a long-time member of the Choral Society.
As a child, Clara remembers going to “singing school” in the evenings at her church, when a music teacher would visit for a week or two at a time. She also remembers her efforts at church to sit in the vicinity of a woman named Grace Swicegood Waters.
“I thought she had the most beautiful alto voice,” Clara says. “I tried to sing just like she did.”
The first public singing that Clara remembers was at Cherry Hill Baptist Church in Davie County, with the Poteat Quartet. Her father, D.L. Hendrix, was part of the foursome.
Like Clara, D.L. was known for his love of music. Someone once told him, “Mr. Hendrix, I think you’d rather sing than eat.” According to Clara, he thought a moment and then responded: “I like to sing, then eat, then sing some more.”
Also in the quartet were Raymond and Arnold Poteat, who married Clara’s sister and cousin.
Clara married another Poteat ó a young man named Wood.
Wood couldn’t carry a tune, she says, but he loved to hear her sing.
“You always need good listeners, and he was a good listener.”
He often accompanied her on singing outings, as did their three children.
Her son, Carlos Poteat, has vivid memories of the whole clan gathering together at his grandfather’s house on Saturday nights. The kids would play outside while the adults ó including Clara ówould sing “way on up into the night.”
Early in her marriage, Clara would sometimes leave her children with her mother and travel to sing with the Poteat Quartet. Wood was working second shift in Spencer. “I’d try to be home by the time he got back,” she says. On at least one occasion, however, Wood beat her home.
“That was the only time he ever said anything,” she said.
Clara has fond memories of all-night sings at the armory in Charlotte, where she became acquainted with well-known gospel groups like the Blackwood Brothers and the Happy Goodmans.
The whole family went, and they often wouldn’t get back home until 4 or 5 in the morning, she says.
When Clara was asked about her favorite songs so that they could be included in the church program honoring her, coming up with a list was a difficult task.
“I like any song that has a message to it,” she says.
One special moment for Clara was when her grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered at the front of the church to sing the first song she remembers: “Jesus Loves Me.”
She gets emotional thinking about it.
“It still does something to me,” she says, dabbing her eyes. “That was just about more than I could handle.”
Her oldest granddaughter, Robbin Euart, read a poem, comparing her Grandma Poteat to an Energizer bunny. She described how her grandmother gave her and her friends a slumber party and even “legwrestled” on the floor with them.
Clara’s energy is legendary among her family ó and no one is surprised when she takes her turn on the jet ski at the lake, which she did this past summer. Most of her family lives close by, including daughters Viola Yates and Irene Yeats and son Carlos ó who keeps her stocked with wood for her stove.
When Wood died in 1959, Clara was left to raise their three teenage children.
“I said with the Lord’s help I’d keep my children together and I’d keep my house,” she said.
It was a tough time, but Clara handled her new reality.”She didn’t complain about nothing,” Carlos says.
When her children were young, Clara worked at the North Carolina Finishing Company, inspecting and folding sheets mostly, she says.
But sometimes, if she was lucky, she’d get to work on a piece of equipment called a mangle. She looked forward to that because it meant she got to work with Roscoe Lanning ó who also loved to sing.
“He’d sing lead, and I’d sing alto,” she recalls. “We’d sing all day. Our boss, Carl Young, loved to hear us sing. It would make the day go so much better. I always loved working down there.”
Sometimes, Young would request particular songs.
“We’d just sing and sing and sing,” she says. “We had a good time.”
After Wood died, Clara worked at Rowan Memorial Hospital as a nurse’s assistant and then later, at a textile plant on Brenner Avenue. She retired from Salisbury Manufacturing Company when she was 79. Her jobs were never burdensome. As her granddaughter put it in the poem she read at church, Clara worked “with the joy of play.” Work was fun, Clara says, because she always had friends at work ó and there was always a chance to sing.
When she was working at the hospital, Dr. Bob Tannehill and Dr. Norman Sloop would often hear Clara sing. Impressed with her voice, they invited her to try out for the Choral Society, of which they were members. She was accepted and has been with the Choral Society for close to 40 years.
Clara loves a wide variety of music, from gospel to opera to country and western and “just about any kind of pops music.”
She also loves sports and says she spends much of her summer driving to baseball games and sitting in the stands, watching her grandchildren and great-grandchildren play.
She still gets out her Richard Simmons workout tapes from time to time ó although the last time she did that she”mostly watched,” she says, laughing.
She loves to travel and has been to Alberta and British Columbia and has visited every state except five, she says. In 1971, she traveled to Europe with the Choral Society.This holiday season she’ll fly to Tampa and then head out to Kansas City with some friends.
“You have to stay active,” she says. “If you sit down, you just get old.
“I have had a good life. I have worked hard, and I have gone to church a lot.
“If I could change my life, I don’t know of anything that I would change.” You can hear Clara sing with the Salisbury-Rowan Choral Society tomorrow at 3 p.m. at St. John’s Lutheran Church.
The program, “A Holiday Tapestry” is free.