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Play Us a Song, Piano Man

By John Weiss, April 22, 2024

Jim Fossum had Norrie Syndrome as a young child which left him blind most of his life. He has a talent for music and is well known in the Preston area. (Photo by John Weiss)

Play Us a Song, Piano Man


PRESTON — Jim Fossum said little as he came into the office of Janette VandeZande and Angela Waters at Maple Leaf Service in Preston where he is a client.

VandeZande, site coordinator for the organization caring for people with developmental disabilities, and Waters, program manager, said Fossum had Norrie Syndrome when young and has been blind much of his life. He also has profound hearing loss and a mild intellectual disability. Even with these challenges, he plays the piano and sings, and is known around the Preston area for his musical talent.

“What would you feel like if you didn’t have a piano around?” a reporter asked.

Fossum didn’t reply.

“But you love to play the piano?”

“Yes,” he said quickly.

“If you didn’t have a piano around, what would you do for fun?”

“I don’t know,” Fossum answered.

When asked to choose his favorite hymn, Fossum replied, “Jesus Loves Me. I like Amazing Grace.”

VandeZande and Waters said he also likes to go out to eat. His favorite place?

Culver’s and the Branding Iron.

“Can you play one song?” we asked.

“Yes,” he said.

In the Mood for a Melody

They led him to the piano in the living room of Maple Leaf and he began to play. And then he began to blossom as he played through his favorite songs…

“Amazing Grace.”

“Happy Birthday.”

And “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”

As he played, he changed, he was at home. His playing and singing weren’t flawless, but he played with gusto and joy.  The kind of joy that makes you smile because someone is so content.

“I always think he seems to be much happier when he plays, he’s in his element,” VandeZande said.

“You can tell, he really gets into it, enjoys it,” Waters said. “Almost giddy.”

Maple Leaf tries to bring something like that out in all of its clients, she said.

Everyone is an individual, VandeZande said.

Program Manager, Angela Waters, and Site Coordinator, Janette VandeZande, work with people with developmental disabilities at Maple Leaf Service in Preston. (Photo by John Weiss)

As far as they know, Fossum is their only client with musical talent. A while ago, a staff member organized a dance party for clients and found one woman who loved to dance and was good at it. Others are better at sports, they said.

“We all have the same goal, we want to make sure our clients get the best life they can,” VandeZande said.

“There are not two who are all the same,” Waters said.

Those who don’t know people at Maple Leaf might think they are all alike, VandeZande said. “They are absolutely wonderful to be around,” Waters said.

In Fossum’s case, his mother taught him piano when he was quite young, said Deneen Trogstad, a member of the residential support staff. “It was something she did with him,” she said.

When he was with the Fillmore County Developmental Achievement Center, his job was to go around to nursing homes and even to a church and play piano. It was something he could make a little money doing, Trogstad said.

Universal Language of Music

Tami Christianson, who has been organist at Christ Lutheran Church in Preston, said she has Fossum play about four times a year as a prelude before the service.

“The hymns he performs are the ones from years ago that most older people grew up with when attending church,” she said. “I guess I would say that he loves to play the more traditional hymns. He truly has been a blessing as well as a role model for us all. Despite his blindness, he has continued to use his musical talents to share with us all.”

It’s empowering for Fossum and the congregation to come together, celebrating the diverse talents each person has. This creates a space where everyone can shine, regardless of their abilities.

That’s true, Waters said.

“I think it goes both ways,” she said. “He finds joy in playing for other people and participating in our services, and our congregation is able to connect with a community member they may not have normally met.”

Jim Fossum’s mother taught him piano when he was quite young. He sometimes plays the piano at Christ Lutheran Church in Preston before Sunday service. (Photo by John Weiss)

It shows that those with disabilities can do whatever others can do. And that we all have something unique to contribute and our communities are stronger when everyone has the opportunity to participate. Even if it is in a seemingly small way like playing Sunday morning hymns.

When Fossum was done playing, he listened to a recording of his playing and singing. He smiled and moved his hands to the music. Then he was helped to his favorite easy chair where he kicked back.




John Weiss was a full-time reporter for the Rochester Post-Bulletin for 41 years and wrote the Back Roads column for more than 10 years. His passions include hunting, fishing, birding, nature photography, hiking and just kicking around.

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