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Engaging People: Arvilla McClellan

Monday, June 22, 2009 | 6:21 p.m. CDT; updated 4:09 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Arvilla McClellan plays the washboard in the Older American Klub rhythm band.

COLUMBIA — She grew up in rural Missouri without running water or electricity, and at 82 years old, she’s learning to play the QChord guitar.

Longtime Columbia resident Arvilla McClellan is not one to let grass grow under her feet. Born in La Plata in 1927, McClellan grew up on a farm and started chores at a young age; she remembers accidentally breaking her mother’s wedding china as she dried it at age 5.

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“Those plates were like greased lightning,” she said.

McClellan said her mother raised her to be independent by example. She built her own back porch and “anything she wanted to do, she did it.” The kids were expected to participate in daily chores, including carrying water in buckets to the house from a nearby stream.  

“I was country before country was cool,” McClellan said.

McClellan’s lifelong love of music began early with listening to her mother sing. Later, she remembers playing the washboard and having her mother crab at her to please not lose her only sewing thimble.

McClellan married at 17 — “too young,” she said — and started a family of four, which kept her plenty busy. She recalls with a laugh when her daughter, Sharon, then 2, “waxed the floor with the butter — I stepped out and almost did the splits.”

As the children got older, the family moved to Columbia and McClellan became an operator at General Telephone. She enjoyed talking to people and assisting those who needed help at her job, but found it hard to be away from her kids. During this time, McClellan tried teaching herself music, but discovered her fingers couldn't take the pressure from stringing the guitar on top of hours of dialing at work.

She said her Baptist faith helped her survive some hard times, including a divorce from her first husband and the loss of her daughter, Janet, to cancer. After many years on her own, she met her second husband, Joseph Eugene, in 1989 and they married shortly after. Eugene died three years ago from a lung infection.

Today, McClellan participates in Older American Klub dances, choir and the rhythm band, where she plays the washboard and sings with the rest of the group. She recently bought a guitar lesson book to continue to learn on her own.

She talks to family on the phone frequently, spends time with friends, bakes, tends her rosebushes and enjoys a cowboy channel via the Starz network. "One day I started and I was still watching it at midnight," she said.

McClellan also stays active in her church, New Providence Baptist. She says part of the draw is because it is a country church and the pastor, Larry Curry and his wife, Jan, are “down to earth people” who preach in a way that brings the sermon to life. 

She said Curry recently told a story about a woman who cleaned her pet bird’s cage with a vacuum; the machine accidentally suctioned him up along with the debris. The bird survived, but no longer sings. Curry asked, garnering laughs from the congregation, “Have you been sucked up by the Hoover of life?”

After several more minutes, he concluded by urging his listeners, “Don’t let anyone steal your song.”

At 82 years old, Arvilla McClellan is in no danger of losing her song.


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