SUMMIT, NJ - For residents of Summit, June 15 is now the day the music died.
Longtime Summit resident Capitola Dickerson passed away at her home on Friday. She was 99. Dickerson, known by many as "Cappie," was born Sept. 21, 1913 in Urbana, Ohio. After graduating from high school, she moved to Summit where she spent the rest of her life. She was known as a fixture in the community, reaching everyone with her kindness, generosity, and most of all her love of music.
A pioneer in many ways, Dickerson attended Juilliard School of Music and Columbia University. She shared her love of music as a piano teacher to thousands of students in public and private sessions. She introduced music to hearing impaired students at the Summit Speech School for 30 years and gave music lessons to students at St. John's Pre-School in Summit for 34 years and at the Westfield Day Care Center for 22 years.
She also taught music to preschoolers in Cranford and Millburn, and served for many years as the musician for the Summit Chapter of Church Women United. She has former students living in every state in America.
"I have so much respect for her," said former Summit resident Roland Cummins, who now lives in Seattle. "Not only did she teach me piano and music appreciation. She taught me respect for self. Like the sound of a piano player playing in the rain, let grateful memories survive in time of sorrow."
Renowned professional musicians such as composer-conductor Graeme Cowen, French horn player Tom Varner, composer Carolyn Schmidt, the late Lawton C. Johnson, former Minister of Music at Wallace Chapel as well as and the current Minister of Music at Wallace Chapel, Patricia A. Jackson, and many others of all ages give credit to Dickerson for being a source of inspiration in the development of their musical gifts and talents.
She was a faithful and dedicated member of Wallace Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church in Summit for 80 years, where she was the oldest member and the church historian.
"She was a gem," said Rev. Dr. Denison D. Harrield Jr., pastor. "She was an inspiration to me as her pastor, and an inspiration to everyone in the church. You can't even put it into words. She had a way of just lifting your spirits when you were down, motivating you to go forward when you thought you couldn't."
"She never wanted to be involved in any of the offices of ministry, just wanted to help where she was needed," Harrield said. "If our minister of music was on vacation, I'd call her and ask if she could play, and she'd always say yes. She was a stabilizing pillar of our church."
What she wasn't, Harrield said, is showy with her giving.
"She never wanted attention focused on her," he said. "A few years ago, we planted a tree in tribute to her between the parsonage and the church. When she found out she said 'Why did you do that?' That's just how she was. I'm so thankful to have been her pastor for 23 years."
Dickerson also was known as a champion for freedom through her continuing efforts to secure civil rights for all in Summit. She was one of the first African American women employed in the laboratories at Bell Labs and always encouraged women to develop and use their gifts and talents in every aspect of society.
As a member of the first Sponsors Committee, she was a strong leader in the movement that led to the building of the first affordable housing in Summit. Dickerson's dedicated service to the Summit community earned her recognition and honors from many organizations, including the Summit Area YMCA, Connection, United Way, Tri-City Branch of the NAACP, Chamber of Commerce, Church Women United, Soroptimist International, Links, Boy Scouts, The A.M.E. Zion Church, and Wallace Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church.
She was one of the first recipients of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "Keeper of the Dream" award from Summit's Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Committee. She and late Summit Mayor Walter Long received the first two awards in 2004, according to Annette Dwyer of Shaping Summit Together. Dickerson attended the most recent Celebration of Community Service, held annually as part of Summit's Martin Luther King Jr. observances.
"Capitola also was a founding organizer of the Program of Remembrance at 12 Chestnut Avenue (Senior Housing/Vito A. Gallo Building) to enable the senior citizens to have an MLK service in their building since many of them cannot attend the services around town due to inclement weather, health challenges, etc.," Dwyer said. "She played piano, sang, arranged for the keynote speakers and featured piano students in a public forum. She was and is a remarkable spirit of strength, grace and tremendous gifts. She will be very much missed."
On Dec. 6, 2011, at a meeting of the Common Council of Summit, Dickerson was given the "Key to the City" by former Mayor Jordan Glatt.
"She was an amazing lady," Glatt said. "We were fortunate to have her. It's a huge loss for us, but a celebration of life. Summit is definitely not as bright without her."
Glatt said last October, when the early snowstorm knocked out power to most of Summit, Dickerson came to the shelter the town had set up.
"She walked over," he said. "She spent the night at the shelter, but she was busy calling people and checking on them. She was 98 and she was calling to check on her neighbors, instead of the other way around. That's just the kind of person she was."
Frank Bolden of Berkeley Heights said he has known Dickerson for more than 40 years. She taught his wife, Penny, to play piano, and she taught Penny's mother, all four of their children, and their grandchildren to play.
"She was more than just our family's music teacher," he said. "She was another mother to our kids, sometimes she played therapist for my wife. One time I went to pick her up from a music lesson, and the two of them were sitting in the living room, sipping sherry. My wife told me when she walked in, Miss Dickerson said, 'You look whipped' and my wife said, 'I am.' So instead of a music lesson, they sat down and talked about it."
Dickerson's ability to read what others' needed and reach out to them was, by all accounts, one of her special gifts.
"She could read people," Bolden said. "She could provide whatever you needed to bring your smile back. I knew her for some 40 years and I never heard her say a bad thing about anybody. She was just so positive, and it rubbed off on everyone."
The Boldens adopted Dickerson, who had no family of her own, and began to help look after her as she got older. Frank Bolden said they were worried about her climbing up and down the stairs of her home, so they first installed carpeting, and later a chair lift.
Three years ago, Dickerson fell in her kitchen and fractured her hip. She crawled to the steps, dragged herself up the stairs to her bedroom, tidied up the room, paid a few bills, then called the rescue squad.
Bolden said when they asked her later why she didn't use the chair, she admitted she didn't even know how it worked and didn't bother to learn because she needed the exercise. The Boldens were worried her health would deteriorate quickly, as it can easily do when an elderly person breaks a hip. But true to form, Dickerson got her hip fixed, went to rehab and started walking again without a cane.
Bolden said that when he and Penny went to Dickerson's house to find material for her obituary, they found a journal she had started when she turned 97. In it, she had written "Did I do the right thing today? Did I say the right thing when people needed it? Just because I'm 97 doesn't make me wiser. What it makes me know is that I have to work harder to know what people need from me. That's my prayer."
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to Wallace Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church in Summit, the Summit Speech School in New Providence, or the Capitola Dickerson Music Enhancement Fund at the Westfield Foundation in Westfield.
A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, at St. John's Lutheran Church, 587 Springfield Ave., Summit. Arrangements are by Judkins Colonial Home. For condolences, visit www.judkinscolonialhome.com.