An Unbelievable Life
Mother, wife, teacher, POW, author – Grace Nash packs a lot of living into 97 years‘Amazing’ GraceMother, Wife, Teacher, POW, Author: Grace Nash Packs a Lot of Living into 97 Years
By Joy Swalley
As she began her tale, Grace Nash sighed and pressed her hands firmly together. The petite woman – now 97 years old – spoke with a slow, thoughtful drawl. It’s a strange saga she has told many times before, and as she told it this time, her smiling face grew a little darker.
“My life really is unbelievable,” Nash said.
Having lived the better part of a century, Nash has led a life that most people only read about in novels. Her story has unfolded like a fairy tale – complete with romance, danger, villains and a happily-ever-after ending. She accomplished things most women of her generation only dreamed about – and lived a life most of us couldn’t even imagine.
Today, Nash lives at Westminster Oaks Retirement Village – and son Roy Nash says she is still asked to talk about her life. She has written two autobiographical novels, mostly focused on her family’s life as prisoners of war during World War II and their experiences re-entering civilian life following their release.
A master teacher and musician, Nash also has published more than 30 music books and has taught hundreds of workshops and college-level courses nationwide. Her books are still widely used in teaching the Carl Orff method, combined with Kodaly hand signals, to public school children throughout the world.
Roy Nash said his mother “spends a lot of time on her Macintosh computer” and is compiling a book of verses and rhythm chants aimed at helping senior citizens keep their minds sharp.
“In other words, she is still the same old Amazing Grace, never giving up or giving in to any of the many broken bones and health issues that come along, while staying dedicated to purposeful work and helping others,” Roy Nash said. “We think that is what keeps her sharp.”
A Charmed Youth
Grace Chapman Nash, an Ohio native, spent her childhood on the family farm.
“I did a lot of farm chores, like milking the cows and picking potatoes,” she said. “There was also homework time, but a lot of music time.”
Nash and her four siblings learned to play piano at an early age. Taught by their mother, the children would often perform for family and friends.
“My father loved to show us off,” Nash recalled happily.
As a young adult, Nash headed off to Ohio Wesley College to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music and French. After graduation, she taught junior high English and music.
“I taught during the Depression, a terrible time,” Nash said. “My family was fortunate, though, because we had a farm and could grow crops.”
Nash truly was a pioneer in a man’s world at Ohio Wesley. Attending college in those days was difficult enough, but to be an independent woman attending college was an achievement in itself. Nash had won a scholarship for tuition and found two jobs in order to cover room and board. She supported herself during college by playing the violin at the local YMCA, and at a bar and grill where she played the dinner hour.
After teaching for a few years, Nash moved to Chicago to attend the Chicago Musical College to pursue her master’s
degree in concert violin and composition. A chance meeting on a train would change the course of her life forever.
“The way I met my husband sounds unbelievable, but it’s true,” Nash swore.
Finding Romance on a Train
Nash went home to Ohio during Christmas break in 1936 to visit her family. On the train ride back to Chicago, a young businessman offered to help with her luggage, “because as a female you always have too much luggage.” They chatted on the ride to Chicago and she found out he was an American engineer who lived in Manila, the Philippine capital, and was on his way to Chicago for business.
“I found him very fascinating, being from Manila,” Nash recalled. “I had never met anyone from Manila.”
After only five days, the man, Ralph Nash, proposed to her.
“I accepted,” Nash said, her face lighting up. She completed her master’s degree and moved overseas, where she and Ralph Nash were married in 1937.
A New Home
The city of Manila was really booming back them. The government buildings were beautiful, Nash said.
“I was a music critic for the paper, started a children’s art center and a junior orchestra,” she said. “We had 40 members, all different nationalities. The city itself was cosmopolitan.”
Nash played violin solos in the Manila symphony and joined the orchestra.
“I was the only American and the only woman,” she said proudly.
During this time, war with Japan was imminent.
“No one in Manila thought the war would keep growing,” Nash said quietly. “A friend in the Navy said we could wipe (the Japanese) out in a weekend.”
Hours after the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, the city of Manila was bombed.
“We were being bombed three to 10 times a day,” Nash said. “It’s terrible – you don’t feel safe anywhere.”
The Japanese invaded Manila on Jan. 1, 1942, taking all civilians prisoner.
“As we were leaving, I grabbed my violin and the soldier sent to take us said, ‘No take’ and I said, ‘Yes take.’ I opened the case to show him it wasn’t a gun, but he kept saying, ‘No take.’ I took it anyway.”
Nash, her husband and their two sons, Stan and Gale, were put into a vehicle and brought to the abandoned Santo Tomas University. They were the last family to arrive. The family had been told to take one change of clothes and three cans of food, enough supplies for only three days.
They were prisoners for three years.
The imprisoned civilians were starved for two weeks. There were three water taps for 4,000 people, no electricity, no plumbing and no privacy. Finally, prisoners were fed meals of cold oatmeal.
Life in the prison was hard, but one thing helped Nash survive – playing her violin. She recalled an afternoon when she was practicing her violin in her cell. A soldier walked in and began screaming at her in Japanese.
“He nearly scared me to death.” she said. “He began screaming ‘Mozart’ and ‘Beethoven’ as I played. I think he himself may have been a cellist.”
While imprisoned, Nash became pregnant with her third child, a boy named Roy. When the soldiers found out she was pregnant, she was isolated from the other prisoners. Her husband was locked in solitary confinement for 30 days. There was no physical contact allowed between members of the opposite sex within the prison.
The soldiers were just as mean to Nash as they had been before. They completely ignored the Geneva Conventions, she remembered. No births were allowed in the prison, so Nash was sent to a Spanish hospital. She gave birth to her baby there with the help of a Spanish doctor who “did everything he could to keep me going.”
Adjusting to Freedom
After three years, the prison finally was liberated. Nash was overwhelmed at the thought of finally leaving prison.
“Being imprisoned, we had no feelings,” she said. “We were starved and anxious to get home.” The Nash family had no home and no possessions other that what they had with them in prison.
“It’s terrible, you hear yourself talking and saying things, but you don’t feel anything,” Nash said. “It’s hard to describe. You’re sort of an observer.”
The family returned to Ohio to stay with Nash’s parents. Her father died of cancer a few days after she returned home.
The aftereffects of prison were different for each member of the Nash family. The children had not known any life other than in the prison. The family faced many challenges as the children acclimated to school and a normal life.
Fifty-eight years have passed since the Nashes walked out of prison. Two months after getting home, she began writing her first book, “That We Might Live,” a firsthand account of life in the prison. She wrote the book, she said, because she felt that people must know what went on in the prison.
Nash and her husband returned to Manila in 1984.
“The city was like Warsaw – nothing but 4-foot rubble – when we left prison,” she said. “When we went back, there was a lot more city than we had known.”
Throughout her musical career, Nash wrote more than 30 books using the Orff principles of learning. This technique focuses on using music, speech and movement to cultivate a child’s learning. Nash is credited with introducing the program into the public school system. She spent 25 years teaching these methods to hundreds of elementary music and classroom teachers in 48 states, plus Germany, China, Japan, the Philippines, Norway, Nova Scotia, Canada and New Zealand, among others.
When she first began presenting the program to college professors, they frowned on it because they had not studied it.
“They already had their doctorate, they didn’t want to learn anything more,” Nash recalled. “A doctorate is a terminal degree because you think you can’t learn any more.”
Still Going Strong
After her husband died in 1992, Nash moved to Tallahassee to be near her youngest son, Roy. Her other two sons live in Norway and Colorado. She has nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Nash still gives lectures to different groups around Florida about her experiences in the Japanese prison, though even today she never questions why her and her family had to go through such a terrible ordeal. She is just happy they had each other, and happy they survived.
“I knew we would be OK,” she said. “The will to live is stronger than the physical body.”
To learn more about Grace Nash’s “unbelievable” life, visit gracenash.com.
Tallahassee Magazine writer Jason Dehart contributed to this article.