84-Years Young, Piano Man Plays On

Story by Tabatha Duvall

Age is an assigned number that coincides with the year a person is born, but sometimes youth has nothing to do with age.At the age of 84, Jim Setters is one of the most youthful people around. According to the World English Dictionary, youth is the characteristic of freshness, vigor, or vitality. While he’s been many places and lived a very full life, Mr. Setters continues to do so.

Setters, a native of Nashville, Tenn., grew up in “Music City” before country music was king. “When I was there, Nashville had the Grand Ole Opry, but it more of a ‘big band’ city, not necessarily country,” he said of his childhood, “When I was a teen, I’d work at the drug store ‘til ten, and then go down to the War Memorial building and listen to the Opry. It was more ‘hoe-down’ music, or a ‘come on in and give it a try’ kind of place. I had friends that could barely play, and they’d play the Opry. They needed acts to fill in between the big name people.”

Setters left Nashville and enlisted in the Marine Corps in the 1940s and served during World War II. His older brothers had been drafted into the Air Corps and the Navy and he knew he wanted to enlist. Growing up, his father was an alcoholic and was not around much, so he looked up to his brothers and mother. He says his mother, who raised he and his brothers pretty much by herself paid the biggest price of the war: all three of her sons had to leave. He says, “There should be a mother’s veterans day. People expect mothers to die for their children, and in the end the children give their lives for their mothers.”

After his tenure in the Marines, he decided he wanted to stay in the military on commission. He enrolled at what is now Wichita State University, and joined the Reserved Officer Training Corps. He became platoon leader in the Army from his ROTC commission during the Korean Conflict.

While in Wichita, he decided to take a chance on radio.

“While I was attending, I saw a marquee that said the university radio station was trying out people for announcements. I was taking speech, so I talked to the guy, and I told him I worked with the Armed Forces Radio Network. I lied my way into it. He was very impressed and I had never even listened to the AFRN,” Setters laughed.

“At the time I had a very limited vocabulary, and I can remember making a lot of mistakes. They gave me a small minuet program, a 15 minute thing, and one day I called a ‘caricature’ a ‘cari-catcher.’ I had never seen the word!” However, the love of radio overshadowed his inexperience, and he took a job in Guymon, Okla., as an announcer and he and his wife, Dana, moved there in 1949.

Setters found his way back to Nashville working in radio in 1974. He was then involved more in management, but the majority of his career was in news on the cutting edge of radio.

When the Federal Communications Commission began freeing up frequencies, radio stations had to begin playing music or subscribe to a recorded program, and “radio personalities” became popular until music completely took over. Independent radio also brought about on-the-scene reporting as two-way radio began to be used.

He laughed as he said, “You had to do some bad, bad driving to get there, and a lot of police had to turn their heads. I enjoyed a career where everything was progressing and changing. You could bring a different sound and a different approach to everything.”

The Setters moved to Boulder, Colo., when their daughter gave birth to twins to be there with the new grandchildren. Their son-in-law at the time had owned and sold the Beckham Creek Cave Lodge in Newton County, Ark. The buyer had gone bankrupt, and so their son-in-law was again in possession.

The Setters were given the opportunity to move to Newton County and bring the lodge back up to par in 1995. After it sold,they moved back to Boulder for a year before moving to Bella Vista, Ark., and then back to Newton County. As they got older, they decided to move closer to town. After considering towns in Missouri, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, they decided to move to Russellville.

“It had everything we needed and most of what we wanted: the lifestyle, the church, the culture, the attitudes. Russellville had it.”

The Setters have lived in Russellville for six years now. They attend the West Side Church of Christ, which is where Jim met his now piano teacher, Beth Sorrells.

He began taking piano lessons in April of 2012. He says taking piano is “a very interesting procedure for older people, especially older men. We want to standardize or be in control or be definitive about things and once we take a tool out of the box it should work, but piano isn’t like that. You take it out of the box and it’s like a handful of mercury, but I’m getting close.”

“I know it will come, just like typing. I find myself where my fingers will proceed in the music, but I’m still fighting measure by measure. I’m a very symmetric person, and music, the piano, isn’t like that. It’s very continuous.”

For an upcoming recital, Setters chose to play Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” though he says, “I really shouldn’t have! It’s a very vocal piece. It’s noted because of its lyrics. The words are the more dominant part of the piece. I’m not like Sinatra, I’m not a ‘my way’ kind of guy.” He joked, “And I may have selected it because it’s simple to play.”

With a more serious tone, he added, “At age 84, we tend to think, we are old faded paint or we’re not taken seriously, old fashioned, all the cliches. A lot of us – if we’re not careful – begin to think of ourselves of useless or ignored. We hear about our ‘wisdom’ but we hear it as hollow words, as if we’re in the way. If we’re not careful,we’ll drift into the thinking that we are invaluable, and the ‘wisdom’ we hold is just decadence. That’s why I’m learning to play the piano.”

“Once I learn, I’ll be able take this ability with me. I won’t be able to hand it off to someone. But I still want to play because I enjoy it! I usually get up before Dana, and I’ll sit down at the piano and play softly to be her alarm clock.”

He and Dana have been married for 62 years and he constantly smiles as he speaks of her. The couple has a daughter and son. The Setters met during his college years in Wichita. One Sunday, he attended the local Church of Christ, and as he walked in the Sunday School classroom, “there she was. I knew within three weeks she was the one. After 62 years, we’ve become a unit. I’m as much a part of her as she is a part of me.”

While he spoke a good deal about the past, he admits that he tries to not live in “yesterday,” but refuses to forget it either. “It’s forever in your thinking. My generation goes back to where things are more basic. We had no electricity or running water growing up. Now with nanotechnologies and little robotic things, there’s so much change! Mostly for the good I think. My generation has gone from kerosene to LED lights, from no space exploration to a robot on Mars. We are products of our circumstances. We are who we are because where we have been placed, and our generation has had a great time.”

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