On Friday, like she’s done every Friday since her husband Gene died 15 years ago, Mary Neal Kunsman is singing in the main waiting room at Roper St. Francis Hospital in West Ashley.
Her oeuvre is 1940s, especially show tunes. Between warbles, the almost-90-year-old tells stories about Johnny Mathis, how Ireland got its name, Andy Williams, and the like.
Her audience sits in wheelchairs, wear full upper body braces, and sport identification bracelets. Some are waiting to hear great news from the doctors, while others aren’t sure what the diagnosis will be.
But one thing none of them had on was a frown. “Miss Mary” as staff calls her, gets her biggest reaction from a sing-a-long version of “Bye, Bye Blackbird.” Miss Mary dispenses with most of the verses, cajoling everyone to join her in the chorus. She knows how to work a room.
When someone makes a request for a song not listed on her laminated card she carries with her, she puts her finger to her forehead and “googles” it. Soon her memory gives out a chorus.
One elderly gentleman, initially surprised by the singing, pulled out his cellphone and began recording her show.
Another woman, wheeled in with her feet dragging her slippers across the floor, picks up one eye and pays attention.
The teen against the wall? She won’t take her eyes off her “smart” phone, and talks in a loud voice to her father. Can’t reach’em all?
When Miss Mary hits all the right notes in “Getting to Know You,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s big tune from “The King and I,” she tells the story of how Deborah Kerr didn’t sing a note in the movie. “She was dubbed in by Marni Nixon,” she says to a smattering of recognition.
“Moon River” goes over big. So does “Tonight, Tonight” from West Side Story.
When she’s done, she receives a seated chorus of thank-you’s. Soon, she’ll “make the rounds” upstairs, more focused on what the suffering and worried want to hear.
“It’s like Jimmy Durante said, ‘I got a million of them,’ but my favorite might be ‘What a Wonderful World.’ That’s Louis Armstrong,” she says, cane in hand, car keys in pocket. “Or maybe, ‘When You Wish Upon a Star;’ that’s from ‘Pinocchio.’”
An alum of the voice program at USC, she’s written her own songs, as well as a book. “I have over 75 songs on YouTube,” she says. The first one on that website is her singing “As Time Goes By” (which was featured in the classic Humphrey Bogart film “Casablanca”) four years ago at Hollings Cancer Center Downtown.
Roper St. Francis is far from the only hospital she volunteers at. Five days a week finds her at five different hospitals from Summerville to West Ashley to downtown to Mt. Pleasant.
The former choir director at Billy Graham’s home church in Charlotte, Miss Mary followed the love of her life, Gene, to the Charleston area. In tow were pictures of her eight children, which have expanded to include 18 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren.
An industrial engineer, Gene fell in love with her “at first sight,” saying she was the “most beautiful girl in the world,” and that he knew right away that this was the girl for her. That was when he was an enlisted man serving his country, preparing to ship off for World War II.
Miss Mary didn’t believe a word of it. At first. They corresponded, and then reconnected after the war, and she decided that she’d marry him because “ he’d nearly died in the war and he said he couldn’t live without me.”
In 2003, Gene passed away after 57 years of marriage. Miss Mary decided to get out of the house and help those in tougher spots than her. She remembers one day worrying about her “hinky knee” until she sang a hymn to a woman missing her leg.
Giving what she could to others, song, was a salve for her, too. And it gave her purpose that continues to sustain her to this day.