Sanders Beach-Corinne Jones Resource Center
913 South I Street
Pensacola, FL 32502
Geraldine Teresa Collins died in her Northwest Florida home on March 4, 2023, at 8:49 PM.
The tenth of eleven children born to William T. and Mary (Walton) Collins of Pensacola, Florida, Gerrie (as she always preferred to be called) entered the world on October 15, 1932. She would later acknowledge the hardships attending life in a large, impoverished family during the Great Depression and World War II. But those dense domestic influences provided their own brand of enrichment, and the austerity of the times favored those with a bent towards introspection and self-discovery. So when brothers Robert and Bill brought the first audio recordings into the Collins home, they coincidentally sparked in their little sister a budding awareness of the principal passion and vocation of her life: music. Gerrie began piano lessons at the age of seven, and a Wurlitzer spinet purchased on an installment plan graced the family living room a few months later.
While Gerrie always downplayed the measure of her innate gifts, others did not. Combining an excellent ear with equally superb sight-reading ability, finger dexterity, and musical appetite, she quickly outgrew the assigned pieces, and her forays into the old Reynald’s Music House on Garden Street to explore new manuscripts—which she rendered through the glorious sonorities of a Steinway concert grand—always drew enthusiastic applause from store personnel and shoppers. One such shopper brought her talent to the attention of noted Pensacola dance instructor Elvie De Marko, who hired Gerrie, then just fifteen, to play piano for her ballet classes.
With money earned from that job, she bought her mother her first refrigerator, exemplifying the kind of selfless family support that, as much as music itself, came to define her life. By the time she finished high school, her then-piano teacher, Mrs. Paul Stewart, urged her to apply to the exclusive (and expensive) conservatory at Ohio’s Oberlin College.
A year later, she did. Leveraging an impressive audition tape, financial help from her Uncle Arthur, and disciplined savings from work at her Uncle Scaper’s drycleaning business, Gerrie enrolled at Oberlin Conservatory in the fall of 1951, studying under esteemed pianist and educator (and eventual Oberlin College President) Emil Danenberg. By her second year, her indomitable self-reliance took over, and she assumed all costs of her education going forward, working in restaurants—both during and between semesters—and taking out loans as necessary. Her hard work culminated in a senior recital that featured the Beethoven “Waldstein” Sonata, Debussy’s Images, and an especially lauded performance of Chopin’s B-minor Sonata.
When she received her bachelor’s degree in 1955, she became the first Collins to graduate from college. But she was just getting started. Seeking post-graduate work closer to home, she pursued her Master of Music at the University of Mississippi, where she continued her piano studies under Dr. Mark Hoffman while financing her education through a teaching fellowship. Notable highlights of her time at Ole Miss included a performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat with the University Symphony Orchestra and a recital presentation of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata #7 and Debussy’s L’isle Joyeuse.
Finding the right niche in the music education field proved as challenging in 1957 as ever. So she moved through positions as a high school chorus teacher in Winchester, Illinois, and as a piano and choral instructor at East Mississippi Junior College before accepting an associate piano professorship at Mississippi State University in 1964.
MSU offered Gerrie the right combination of professional fit and reasonable proximity to her Florida roots while gifting her with some treasured relationships. Lucy and Robert; Jan and John; Harold, Liz, Paula, Leann, Jack, Joel, Jane, Brenda, and Brenda. These and so many other Starkville friends and colleagues over the years became her family away from family.
And then there were her students. Those bright, eager souls served as the treasured vessels into which she could pour her refined pianistic sensibilities, and they returned to her a lifetime of grateful acknowledgment, the kind uniquely born from the rigor, encouragement, and intimacy typifying four years of one-on-one mentoring. Their recitals and career accomplishments and marriages and children (and, eventually, grandchildren!) were all of great personal importance to her, and the cards and gifts they gave her over the years adorned her home and filled her scrapbooks.
Yet even as she grew into a cherished teacher, Gerrie remained a student. She complemented a one-year sabbatical from MSU in 1974 with a fellowship at North Texas State University, returning there over successive summers to obtain a Doctor of Musical Arts degree under the tutelage of internationally renowned pianist Joseph Banowetz. Thus “Miss Collins” became “Dr. Collins” in 1979, and promotions to full professorship and head of the piano area at MSU ensued.
With repertoire spanning Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, she performed at dozens of faculty and civic recitals over the course of her career. Some of those were recorded and will eventually be digitized and featured on this website. She also actively engaged in the collegiate competition scene, guiding her students to many successes at Mississippi competitions and becoming a favored adjudicator at events in other states.
The ballast to all of Gerrie’s professional endeavors was, of course, her family, and her devotion to them is legend. Every Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, and summer hiatus—save those dedicated to her doctoral studies—she spent in Pensacola helping her equally devoted brother, Lawrence, care for their aging parents. With their dementia-afflicted mother requiring round-the-clock care for 15 years, the financial and personal sacrifice this entailed cannot be overstated.
So, while Gerrie’s love for her job could have easily led her to continue working to age 65 (or longer), she instead gave herself back to her family in 1991, retiring Professor Emerita at 58 and returning to Pensacola. Though Lawrence died shortly after, those early retirement years brought regular, joyful interaction with the Lowrey, Mondello, and Aque factions of her clan. They also brought yard and home-improvement projects; fanatical fascination with Tom Brady that would last throughout his New England tenure; and Boris, Gerrie’s first dog, an experience that merits its own chapter book in her life chronicles.:-)
She entered the digital age with youthful gusto, acquiring her first PC in 2000 and promptly learning to use MS Word, scan photographs, author CDs, and creatively customize the uplifting thank-you notes and greeting cards she showered on acquaintances at every opportunity. Meanwhile, she fertilized late-blooming interests in Antarctica and the Hadron Collider with the universe of scientific information suddenly at her fingertips. She also gravitated to several online forums where she could engage with fellow music buffs, and a handful of those contacts became highly valued email friends for two decades.
The years also brought her much loss, none greater than the 1999 death of her dear sister, Amy Lowrey, following a two-year cancer ordeal during which Gerrie served as co-caregiver. But she gradually assimilated her grief in illustration of her remarkable emotional and physical resilience. Between 2005 and 2021, she recovered from triple bypass surgery, a broken hip, a nasty fall that fractured her wrist and cheek, and even lung cancer.
The one distress she could not overcome was dementia. Her cognitive decline began almost imperceptibly but raised warning flags by 2015 and became genuinely, sometimes dangerously limiting by 2019. When her already-modest appetite plummeted in mid-2022, the trajectory was clear, and she entered hospice.
Even to the end, however, Gerrie knew her family and retained her sense of personal identity. Perhaps most poignantly, she also retained her love of music. Though she outlived nearly all of her closest contemporaries and neither married nor had children, a host of loved ones visited in her final days, even as she lay in a coma. Aware of the hospice adage that “the hearing is the last thing to go,” they enveloped her in music almost continuously, allowing her soul to play its way to eternity on the immortal notes of Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Morricone, and so many other composers whose work served as the soundtrack of her life. Only as she struggled for her final breaths did they dim the sound, providing a moment of reverent silence, punctuated by their sobs, to mark the close of the magnum opus that was Gerrie Collins.
She is preceded in death by her parents; by all ten of her siblings—Mercie, Inez, Leon, Robert, Bill, Lawrence, Evelyn, Amy, Steve, and Eileen; by a number of their descendants, including nieces Deborah Liebler and Teresa Collins, nephew Charles Brazzel, great niece Jodi Grantham Creel, and great nephew Kyle Lowrey; by brother-in-law George Lowrey; by several students, including Thomas Fulton, Al Murray, and Lesli Wood Wilson; and by her beloved German Shepherd, Boris.
She is survived by innumerable students and by a multitude of nieces and nephews and their families, including David Thornton; Susan Baker; Rodney Brazzel; Wendy Liebler; Randy Collins; Julie Mottes; Mary Lou Grantham; Bunny Franklin; Beatrice Johnston; Grace, Gary, and Johnny Mondello; Joanne and Bruce Smith and Mary McAferty; Bruce and Lyn Aque; Gerald and David Lowrey and Sherry and Betty Broom; Melanie (Lowrey) and Alan Sparr; Katie and Nick Biello; by her adored Yorkie, “Bootsie;” and by niece Elizabeth Lowrey, who lived with Gerrie for the last fifteen and a half years—serving as her companion, sparring partner, eventual caregiver, and fellow doggie mom (to Booter)—and who, above all else, benefitted from the enormous and thoughtful generosity Gerrie lavished upon others.
A catered seafood luncheon will follow the formal portion of the service and will include crab cakes in homage to Gerrie’s signature dish, which became required (and zealously consumed!) fare at every major family gathering for decades.
A nine-foot Steinway concert grand is being rented for the day to serve both as a premium musical instrument and as an important visual symbol. Musicians of all abilities and backgrounds are encouraged to play, and what can’t fit within the formal memorial program will surely fit within the less formal “concert” that will follow the luncheon. Gerrie’s niece, Elizabeth (a graduate of Berklee College), expects to play a medley of film themes by Ennio Morricone, one of Gerrie’s favorite composers, and will have MIDI keyboards onsite to facilitate spontaneous ensembles and “jams.”
In addition, the family hopes that at least one of Dr. Collins’ former students might be able to attend the service and play a piece in her memory, perhaps even one learned under her tutelage.
If you received a written invitation in the mail, please return the included RSVP card to indicate whether or not you will attend (and whether you would like to play a piece during or after the service). If you were among those invited by social media or email, or are otherwise a friend of Gerrie’s who somehow found this website and would like to attend, please register and, after logging in, complete the RSVP form accessible via the “Edit Profile” link in your member profile/account area.
The Gerrie Collins Endowed Piano Scholarship at Mississippi State University will honor Dr. Collins’ long and influential career as a piano professor at that institution. To become a self-sustaining award, the corpus must reach at least $25,000, and our goal is to meet or exceed that threshold by the October 15th memorial service (which is also Gerrie’s birthday).
For information on how you can help, please visit the MSU Scholarship page.
To support the Gerrie Collins Endowed Piano Scholarship, visit the Mississippi State University Foundation giving page, and use the search box to quickly locate the fund. Alternatively, you can print and fill out the pdf form, specifying the fund name on the appropriate lines, and mail it to the Foundation with a check.
Thank you so much for your help!