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Blind pianist volunteered 15 years of music at Essentia

Sharon Gill, who died earlier this year, was blind since birth and taught herself to play piano. She played at Essentia Health's St. Mary's Medical Center and cancer center, as well as at her church and for several weddings and events.

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Volunteer Sharon Gill enjoys performing a medley of familiar tunes on piano for patients and families in the waiting room at the Cancer Center at Essentia Health-Duluth Clinic in 2013. Gill had been blind since birth.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Sharon Gill is remembered by her friends for her sense of humor, her independence, her kindness, her love and talent for music. Many people in Duluth may remember her as the blind pianist who volunteered at Essentia Health for 15 years.

Gill began playing once a week, and after her retirement she devoted several days a week to playing at St. Mary’s Medical Center and the Essentia Health Cancer Center. Gill died in June at age 72 .

"I really enjoy volunteering," Gill told the News Tribune in 2013. "It makes me feel like I'm doing something to help other people. That's what music does: It helps people to heal. It's real gratifying. I'll be playing a song, and patients will come up to me and talk about how they really like the music and it's helped take their minds off their chemo."

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Sharon Gill, who was blind, volunteered playing piano in the waiting room at Cancer Center at Essentia Health-Duluth Clinic. Pictured in 2013, she played an assortment of favorite, familiar tunes.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune

Gill taught herself to play after banging around on the keys of her grandmother’s piano. She also played accordion. Gill knew more than 1,000 songs on piano by memory and could play a variety of genres, including classical, pop, country, Christian, jazz and rock.

Gill would often take requests. According to Christine Mitchell, program manager at Essentia’s Caring Ways Cancer Resource Center, Gill especially loved Barry Manilow.

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“Our patients and employees loved listening to her play and she got many, many compliments,” Mitchell said. “People were always so gracious about approaching her and not startling her. I don’t know initially, because she wore sunglasses all the time, if they knew she was blind.”

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Sharon Gill, who was blind since birth, plays familiar songs on piano in 2013 at Essentia Health-Duluth Clinic. She volunteered Tuesdays in the waiting room in the cancer center.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune

Gill was blinded at birth when she was exposed to oxygen in her incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit. The accident also impacted her hearing, teeth and growth. According to those close to her, Gill never expressed any bitterness about the event.

Mitchell said it was hard to know how old Gill was, and the staff at Essentia was shocked to learn she’d turned 70 in 2019. Gill’s close friend, Muriel Selen, said she often compared Gill to a leprechaun, because she was short, stout, red-haired and Irish — born in 1949 to John and DeLaine Shea, of Grand Rapids.

Gill attended the Oregon School for the Blind, then transferred to a standard public high school. She moved back to Minnesota, where she had family on the Iron Range, because the state had impressive rehabilitation and training programs for the blind.

She met her husband, Ed Gill, at the for Vital Living in Duluth, where they both trained and worked. Ed, who was also blind, died in 2008.

Although it now goes by a different name, Duluth's Lighthouse Center continues to provide help for those who want to independently.

Ed and Sharon would record themselves playing and singing Christmas music each year and give the cassette tapes as gifts to close friends and family. Selen said she felt lucky to have received the tapes of music as gifts.

Selen met Gill while working at the Duluth Clinic, now Essentia Health. Gill was a medical transcriptionist there for 28 years. Selen was appointed to help watch out for Gill because of her blindness, and the women soon learned they had a lot in common — including a love for reading, especially James Herriot. Gill received large quantities of braille books and magazines from the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, and was well-read across genres, including science, current events, fiction and culture.

The women also had a mutual love for music. Gill and Selen attended many concerts, musicals and other stage performances together. Selen would try to describe the events happening onstage to Gill, but she said Gill enjoyed the music aspects of the shows enough on their own.

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Gill became close with Selen and her family, and started attending church with them at Elim Lutheran Church of Blackhoof, near Barnum. Gill lived in Duluth, so every Sunday, she would ride down with Pastor John Sippola, and after his retirement, with Pastor David Hagemann.

“When John retired, I kind of automatically inherited the job of picking up Sharon every Sunday morning,” Hagemann said. “We’d always find something to laugh about.”

Women gathered around a piano
Sharon Gill, seated, with Muriel Selen, center, and Selen's family at a wedding.
Contributed / Muriel Selen

Gill had a great sense of humor and wasn’t afraid to laugh at herself. Selen said Gill would always be up for another round of cocktails because she didn’t have to drive home. Hagemann remembers teasing Gill for not noticing his haircuts and for her humorous use of phrases about sight.

“She’d say things like, ‘I lost my sunglasses and I’ve been looking all over for them,’ and I’d say, ‘Sharon, you’re blind. You can’t look at anything,’” Hagemann said. “She’d laugh and say, ‘You know what I mean.’”

Gill provided music for many church events, including her favorite, the Potato Sausage and Swedish Meatball Dinner. She also played at several weddings for church members, and relatives of both her own and Selen’s. Earlier in life, she played in the country show in Aurora for many years with her uncle as the guitarist.

Selen said Gill was a real cheerleader who uplifted her friends. She's grateful that her nieces and nephews, and their children, could know Gill and learn about the lifestyle of a blind person.

“My niece had the experience to meet someone that a lot of people never get to meet and know that they have physical limitations, but it doesn’t limit them in their life,” Selen said. "They can live a full and rich life and be successful. I think that’s special. I wish other people had that experience.”

Gill didn’t always ask to feel people’s faces, as some blind people do for recognition, and instead mostly relied on voices. However, Selen said she will never forget the first time Gill brailled her face.

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“It’s a unique experience,” Selen said. “You can have somebody touch you, but when you have hands come up to your face and they’re gently going through all the contours of your face, it’s a much, much different experience.”

Gill, a very social person, stayed close with friends she met at the school for the blind, participating in over-the-phone Bible studies and traveling to see them. She was also very close with her brother, Pat Shea, who died in 2020. Selen said Shea taught Gill to drive when they were young because he thought she should know what the driver is experiencing behind the wheel while she’s in the car.

Essentia was unable to have volunteers come to the hospital when the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March 2020. During the pandemic, Gill’s memory started to fail, and she moved out of state to be nearer to her remaining relatives. Those close to her believe the isolation took its toll on Gill, and being unable to share her gift of music may have increased the progression of her dementia.

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Sharon Gill, right, with her sister-in-law, Lynn Gill.
Contributed / Muriel Selen

Hagemann regrets that he and the rest of the church congregation didn’t get to say goodbye to Gill before she moved away.

“She was pretty special,” Hagemann said. “I miss her every Sunday.”

Mitchell said although there are other volunteer musicians at Essentia, Gill’s music is still remembered and missed by staff and longtime patients.

“People really loved it,” Mitchell said. “I got so many compliments about having a piano player. I still get asked, now, ‘Is the piano player coming back?’ It definitely just changed the environment when she was playing.”

Related Topics: DULUTHESSENTIA HEALTHMUSIC
Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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