LAWRENCEVILLE —Else Shewmake kept a rock on her grand piano.
Over five decades, the German immigrant explained its significance to hundreds of students, pointing out the curvature where drops of water had slowly done their work on the stone’s face. The little things you do every day, she would say under the guise of a piano lesson, are what change and shape your life.
Else Shewmake taught Lawrenceville’s children — future mayors, attorneys, pastors, architects and teachers — how to play the piano, and she taught them much, much more.
She passed away Monday night at the age of 86, the result of complications after a fall.
“It’s just been incredible to see the impact she had on this town,” daugther Lafrida Preston said.
Lawrenceville Mayor Judy Jordan Johnson began learning piano from Shewmake when she was about 6 years old. Back then — circa 1960 — students at Lawrenceville Elementary School had the option of taking music lessons during lunch or recess, and Shewmake offered classes out of her home.
A stickler for theory and scales, she was a demanding but loving teacher, asking for the best but helping her students get there.
“The house was always full of music because she taught late into the evening, and she was not bound by time,” Preston said. “You weren’t out of there in 30 minutes. If it took you longer or if you needed help with technique or theory or anything extra, she always made sure that you got the attention you needed.”
In 1983, Johnson was in a serious car accident and nearly lost her life. Shewmake became a dear friend and a “great part” of her recovery.
“I went over to her house and even though I had tubes in my side and my leg was in a cast, we played duets together,” Johnson said. “And we continued that throughout the years. It’s been 20 years since that accident.”
As recently as six months ago, Shewmake gave her city’s mayor a new duet to learn. They never got to play it together.
Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris also learned piano from Shewmake, as did Lawrenceville City Councilman P.K. Martin, his mother and, just this last year, his daughter.
“I remember when she would take us to the state competitions over in Cleveland,” Martin said, “and we’d always make a stop in Helen to get a funnel cake. It’s kind of funny the things you remember … She meant a lot to Lawrenceville.”
Proud of her German heritage and classical training, Shewmake met her future husband stateside when he, an Army chaplain during World War II, needed a church organist. They moved to Lawrenceville and built a home together.
Piano was Shewmake’s most public passion, but not her only one. She was an “incredible” gardener and wasn’t afraid to be frank regarding city issues. Though nobody in Gwinnett knew what a Lutheran was when she moved to the area — “they thought she was a Jew,” her daughter laughed — she was instrumental in starting a number of her denomination’s churches across metro Atlanta.
She attended a large handful of churches herself, and also helped found a pair of German singing groups. Her faith was not something to be reckoned with.
“It never waivered,” Preston said. “I never heard her express any doubts, and anything that she couldn’t understand she said she was gonna ask the Lord when she saw him face-to-face.”
Visitation for Shewmake will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Lawrenceville chapel of Tim Stewart Funeral Home. Memorials services will follow. An online guestbook can be signed at stewartfh.com.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the building fund for Nativity Lutheran Church, 799 Christmas Ave., Bethlehem, Ga., 30620; or Hope Lutheran Church’s piano fund, 3525 Rogers Road, Wake Forest, N.C., 27587.
Shewmake had suffered a fall recently and passed away after being put into hospice care over the weekend.
“Right before she went to the hospital,” Preston said, “she was playing piano beautifully.”