HOOKS, Texas — Bennie Fay Smith was only 13 when she began playing piano for her church every Sunday.
More than 70 years later, she still plays piano and organ every Sunday but is also accompanied by an orchestra of some of her former piano students.
Bennie Fay, 85, was honored recently at Myrtle Springs Baptist Church in Hooks for the many years she has been playing music for church services. She has been the church's primary organist since she was 13.
"When I was 13, I was the only piano player the church had. Now I'm glad I have some of the students I have taught to play with me," she said. "I've always had a teaching position in the church, almost since I started playing."
"She is a beloved member here. Everyone loves Bennie Faye," said her friend and fellow congregation member, Mary Starratt.
Bennie Faye Stevens Smith grew up in a family of musicians. Everyone in her family played an instruments and her dad bought a piano when she was in the third grade. A teacher down the street gave her a few lessons before the family moved from Texarkana to Hooks.
Bennie Faye took what she learned from those lessons and continued to teach herself to play hymns and other music.
When she was 12 years old, a retired opera singer came to the church to help the congregation with their music. He asked Bennie Faye to accompany him on the piano. Then he gave her a book of solos, and told her to practice one particular song until she could play it just as written. Later in the week, he sang with her accompaniment and cut a record.
When Bennie Faye was 13, the church pianist moved away, and she started playing for all the church services.
Myrtle Springs Baptist Church was very small then, but the church finally had enough money to purchase an organ. Bennie Faye had never played the organ before, except for an old pump organ at home that, as a very young girl, was so hard to pump, she couldn't make it through a song. But at that point, she started playing the new organ, and some of her students took over the piano.
As a junior in high school, she had a teacher from Texarkana, Arkansas named Rosemary Guillot, who so inspired Bennie Faye, that she later named her daughter Rosemary after her.
Guillot asked Bennie Faye to start teaching piano to some of her students at Nash Elementary School. It was at that time, Bennie Faye first felt her calling to make more church musicians through teaching.
Though she is a talented musician, Bennie Faye downplays her own talents and says she is just happy she could use her gift to teach other piano students, she said.
"The real blessing is to see some of my students on stage on Sundays," she said.
Many of her students also loved music and continued their music studies. One became a Music Director in a Methodist church in the Dallas area. Another married a music director and was able to accompany him. Bennie Faye now shares the stage with three of her students: Carolyn Griffin, pianist; Valerie Edwards, keyboards; and Angie Duke, guitar. It is her desire to play a duet with each of them, and she has already played with Carolyn, and with Valerie.
"Her former students always say it was an honor to have been taught by her," Starratt said.
Music has also helped shape Bennie Faye's family life.
While playing in a revival as a young woman, Milton Smith noticed her and asked her if he could take her out for a Coke.
She said "yes,"and they were married after two years of dating.
They were married 61 years until his death and had three children, Howard, Rosemary, and Jeff.
Milton loved to sing and music was always something their family shared.
"Every time the family would get together we would celebrate eating and then gather around the piano and celebrate music," Bennie Faye said.
She is also shy about people honoring her service. She prefers to give credit to God.
"Who should we be honoring today? Not Bennie Faye," she said.