There’s a peaceful silence atop Sally’s Rock where the Gasper River empties into the Barren River in northwestern Warren County. It’s quiet from there to Woodbury at abandoned Lock 4 where the Barren flows into the Green River in eastern Butler County. But above the bend at Morgantown, memories of old steamboat days are alive in the Main Street home of a music teacher, “Miss” Ione Duke.
She’s 95 years old.
“Would you like to hear me play?” she asks, reaching for her neatly organized sheet music.
She walks on a straight line to the only upright Steinway in Butler County. She slides onto the bench, straightens her back, and sits as tall as her tiny frame will allow. Miss Ione elevates Rock of Ages and Blessed Assurance through variations to make a body wonder that such simple hymns could be so intricately beautiful.
Miss Ione has spent her life teaching music to the children of Butler, Ohio, and Webster counties.
She has played them all: trombone, cello, violin, clarinet, saxophone, and trumpet, but the piano is her passion. Chopin is her favorite classical composer, but somebody else is her choice when conversations turn to the days of the steamboats huffing their way from Evansville to Bowling Green.
Maple Leaf Rag fills the room, and there’s a joyful rhythm in Miss Ione’s shoulders, her slender fingers finding the keys with the blessed assurance of a woman who loves many kinds of music and loves to share them all. Twelfth Street Rag, Chicken Reel, Peppermint Twist, the ragtime notes roll from the tip of her toes through her heart to the keyboard of the warm but stately piano.
“I believe you just need something to keep you going. You can sit down and fuss, but nobody wants to hear that. Music will boost my morale,” she smiles.
Each year, on the second Saturday in April, friends come for Miss Ione to take her to Onton, a little Green River town in Webster County. The lady who plays everything from Rock of Ages to Maple Leaf Rag had her first public teaching job in Onton. A reunion there wouldn’t be a reunion without Miss Ione Duke to play the old songs.
"It is fitting and proper to accord official recognition of Mrs. Duke, who has ‘made a difference’ in the cultural structure of the children she has taught,” reads the proclamation signed in 1998 by Morgantown Mayor Charles Black and Butler County Judge/Executive David R. Martin.
The difference can be seen, for example, in the lives of the graduates of the Children’s Choir at the Morgantown United Methodist Church, although Miss Ione says, “I like to visit all churches.”
She’s been the chaplain and almost every other officer in the Butler County Daughters of the American Revolution. She received the “Rural Woman of the Year” award at the Louisville Conference of the United Methodist Women.
Her long list of community involvement spans 28 years as secretary and president of the Morgantown Women’s Civic League, which includes the care and direction of Riverview Cemetery arising symbolically correct at the end of Main Street.
“Do you remember seeing ‘Sally’s Rock?’ “
"Yes. She’d be there to greet the boats,” said Miss Ione of the legendary Sally Beck, who before Miss Ione was born, stood with her megaphone and shouted out the news from atop the promontory at the confluence of the Gasper and Barren rivers.
Ione Duke has played a variation of the theme of Sally Beck, both women reaching out to others, fulfilling their own, distinctive callings.
“Do you play the piano every day?”
“I can tell the difference when I don’t play.”
The difference is a communication with a beginning in a simple megaphone, coming of age on a keyboard, yearning to be a mighty chorus down by the riverside.