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Column: A talented pianist, teacher turns 100

Henrietta Cetas didn’t set out to become a music teacher. If not for the persistence of a neighbor’s child who lived across the street, she may have never discovered the joy she felt in helping to foster a love of music in so many children of all ages.

Music had always been an integral part of Ms. Cetas’ life. Her mother was musically inclined and insisted her seven children receive piano lessons. Her mother sacrificed what she could to come up with money for lessons, even during the era of the Great Depression when the family didn’t have much growing up in Alabama.

Ms. Cetas, the youngest sibling, had a natural talent as a pianist. She pursued her craft with a stern dedication, always trying to improve. She could listen to a record of a famous pianist and  play portions she heard over and over until she got it just right.

It was at her home in Riverhead where she lived with her husband Robert, a well respected plant pathologist, that her unexpected music teaching career began.

As she would practice piano, neighborhood children would gather outside her window to listen. One girl who lived across the street happened to ask Ms. Cetas for a lesson.

“She came and said, ‘Ms. Cetas, can you please, please, please teach me the piano,’ ” said Cheryl Bowen-Hay, Ms. Cetas’ daughter.

Ms. Cetas eventually came to a compromise with the girl’s mother, telling her that if she got a piano, she would agree to teach the girl.

The family soon acquired a piano. So for a modest fee of about 50 cents, Ms. Cetas began to teach the young girl. The word soon spread and more inquires flooded in. 

“Her music teaching abilities got out there,” said Ms. Bowen-Hay, adding that other band teachers in the area began referring students to her mother for lessons.

At the height of her teaching, Ms. Cetas rotated a roster of 30-35 students.

“She loved working with children,” her daughter said.

Ms. Cetas, who turns 100 Wednesday, dedicated her life to helping her community, whether through music or in the church she helped found in the 1950s — the Calvary Baptist Church now located on Riverleigh Avenue. She served as organist and choir director at the church from 1954-2011, retiring at age 90 once she started to have some vision problems.

The family will celebrate the new centenarian with a celebration on her birthday at the church where she spent so much of her life. Her daughter said community members are welcome to attend any time between 2 and 5 p.m. Wednesday. The plan is for a couple of people at a time to visit with Ms. Cetas inside a room at the church so they can manage how many people are around her at one time.

“If it’s a beautiful day, we’re going to be out on the grounds having finger foods, sandwiches and snacks,” Ms. Bowen-Hay said. “And of course cake and ice cream. You can’t have a party without cake and ice cream.”

Both Ms. Cetas and her husband, who died at age 57, had a strong faith that was a central part of their lives.

“They walked the path that God provided for them,” said Ms. Bowen-Hay, who’s 67.

Living in Riverhead, where Mr. Cetas worked for the Vegetable Research Farm, now known as Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Baptist couple sought out a Gospel-based church. They found two other couples with similar beliefs who all got together and formed a Bible study in the Cetas’ home on Howell Court. It expanded from there and after securing a minister, they began to meet at the VFW Hall in Riverhead as a first formal meeting place before a permanent home could be built.

Send a birthday card

Anyone wishing to send a card to Ms. Cetas can mail it to Calvary Baptist Church, 515 Riverleigh Avenue, Riverhead N.Y. 11901

“My mom’s the last living founding member of that church,” Ms. Bowen-Hay said.

Over the years she would play music at churches across the East End, from the Wading River Congregational Church to the First Baptist Church of Greenport. She would perform recitals at the Riverhead Free Library and was even a talented vocalist who would sing duets and trios.

Ms. Cetas remained active throughout her life. She had always been athletic, playing basketball and softball as a kid during a time when athletic opportunities for girls didn’t match the boys. She was a big tennis player and also loved to swim. She’d often visit Iron Pier Beach during the summer.

She continued playing tennis up until she was 95, at which point she said all her partners had either passed away or moved away.

Ms. Cetas, who in her older age has lost close to five inches and now stands about 5-foot-1, still lives in the Riverhead home where she raised a family. Her son, Charles Cetas, who’s now 70, cares for her.

He said his  mother is looking forward to the party, although he has to keep reminding her about it.

“Her memory isn’t what it used to be,” he said. “Hopefully she’ll be well enough for the afternoon.”

He added that he’s looking forward to his mother enjoying the milestone.

Ms. Bowen-Hay, who’s a nurse living in Florida, will fly up this weekend for the celebration. It will be the first time she sees her mother since around Christmas of 2019.

“It’s been hard,” she said. “We have FaceTime, but it’s not the same. I’m real excited. She can’t wait.”

Her mom will travel back to Florida with her after the party for an extended time to give her a little change of scenery. And then likely return at some point back to Riverhead.

She may not play the baby grand Steinway piano in her Riverhead home anymore, but she still revisits the lifetime of memories in her mind.

“She says, ‘I wish I could do it,’ ” her daughter said. “Her heart is there. That’s where her heart always is.”