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Senior Profile: Gladys Hightower counts, and shares, her blessings

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By The Staff

She says, with deep conviction, “I had a blessed childhood.” Standing in the mid-morning breeze awaiting the opening of the Patriot Day 9-11 event at Carnegie Park, Gladys Dolores Hightower could be mistaken as “just another spectator,” but as she begins to sing the National Anthem, it becomes obvious to all that she is special. Nevertheless, she is somewhat self-effacing, saying, “I’m just ol’ Gladys.”

Born Aug. 19, toward the end of the second decade of the 1900s in Valley Mills near Waco, Texas, Gladys is the eighth of nine children of Ernest and Geneva McLennan. Only Gladys and two siblings survive. This was a family well-founded in the importance of church environment of the West Point Methodist Church in Valley Mills.

“We were raised in the church. Mom and Dad made sure we attended Sunday school,” she said.

Gladys’ father was a railroader, her mother a homemaker. “Dad used to sing, and Mother could pray!” She says she was inspired to sing, as she recalls that her father sang inspirational hymns like “Amazing Grace.” She adds that for her, singing has always been a joy.

Growing up, Gladys participated in her church choir, “Echoes of the Valley.” Traveling around Texas with the group, she came to admire other choral groups that visited her church. She says, “You’ve got to feel what you’re singing. I like to feel the blessing within me and to reach out to people, and I’m thankful that I know how to pray.

MUSIC AND LIFE

During the ‘40s, Gladys and her siblings and peers moved through the school years. She recalls that at that time, the schools were segregated, but that the white schools were accepting of the music she and her peers presented.

“We would go to the white high schools to do programs. They made us feel welcome and they especially liked hearing ‘Early One Morning, I Was on My Way to School,’” a popular tune at that time.

Other opportunities arose for the young singers. Gladys remembers that local theaters — “picture show stages” featured live singing, and young artists sang jazz and Ella Fitzgerald songs — popular genres at the time, and later also sang gospel music. For anyone who has been given such a break, it must have been exciting. Perhaps it could be compared to today’s ‘America’s Got Talent’ experience.”

Among Gladys’ most enduring aspirations have been the desire to be a singer and to go to New York. As of today, she has certainly entertained her first aspiration, but she hasn’t been to New York … “yet,” she adds, with a smile. Hightower says, “I really enjoy singing, love good music, and wish I were more into the music field. One day I might make me a CD or something — a combination of popular, gospel and patriotic songs.” Gladys might not realize it, but she certainly is in the music field. She has arrived!

Pilgrim Travelers, Ousters — even Sam Cook, who later became a minister — were featured groups performing in Gladys’ church in Valley Mills. There were many songs, as well as original artists that kept alive Gladys’ love of singing in her early as well as later years. Yes, the gospel and spiritual hymns inspired her, but she also enjoyed popular, secular musical genres like rhythm and blues and even soul music.

It is likely that many music aficionados recognize Gladys’ listing of favorite songs and artists; just their mention probably brings back memories of enduring favorites — music and voices of the past five to seven decades. Think about it — names like Mahalia Jackson singing “We Shall Overcome,” or, perhaps, Aretha Franklin’s “God Will Take Care of You” or Al Green, who also eventually became a minister, with “Let’s Stay Together.”

In 1953, Gladys met her future husband, James L. Hightower. The two married in 1956 and have four daughters — Tracy, Theresa, Rita and Avis. In the mid-80s and early 90s, all four girls graduated Robertson High School in Las Vegas. Tracy and Theresa now live in Texas, while Rita and Avis live in Rio Rancho and Cedar Crest. To date, the girls have added to Gladys and James’s blessings — eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

James’s occupation in construction resulted in the family’s moving various times. In the early-and-mid-1960s, succeeding stints such as work on the Abiquiu Dam, work in Tucumcari and later work in constructing Interstate 25, brought the Hightower family to New Mexico, and finally to Las Vegas in 1965. James eventually retired. For the past 49 years, then, Gladys has capitalized on various opportunities to showcase her vocal talent in and around our town.

ON STAGE

Before long, Gladys was being asked to sing in churches, for funerals and weddings, and at various institutional and municipal functions. Her dulcet tones are enjoyed by the whole spectrum of society, from inmates at the New Mexico State Penitentiary to the graduates at Highlands University. In fact, Gladys got to sing with the Temptations when the group performed at Ilfeld Auditorium just a few years ago — right here in Las Vegas. Apparently Gladys was “recruited” by the group to sing “My Girl” in front of the crowd. The result was a standing ovation. Modestly, Gladys says, “I’ve got pictures of it.”

For those who have heard Gladys’ improvisational renditions of patriotic and other songs, it is no surprise that she is the choice of many. Gladys sings everywhere, even at home — but that’s between her and James, for now. “I can sing you a song ‘bout anything,” Gladys quips. “I’ve done s-o-o-o much singing.”

But Gladys has done much more. In her early years as her girls were growing up, Gladys did day work, but in 1990, when the local Wal-Mart opened, she secured a job, or many jobs at the facility. For 17 years, Hightower’s smile was evident as she performed in various capacities. “I learned how to cut fabric, worked in the hardware department, worked all around.” She even got to sing the National Anthem for store functions and also sang “Going to Kansas City” with a jazz band featured at the store. And, surely everyone who has patronized Wal-Mart in the past few years has been the recipient of her smile as a greeter.

STILL ACTIVE

But this is a lady of many talents and capabilities. Gladys has served in multiple capacities throughout the community: She serves on the board of Samaritan House, does twice-weekly singing visits at Vida Encantada, and for the past five years has been an active member of the local Elks Lodge. “Nice organization,” she says. “You can meet friendly people … just seems like (I’m) one of the family out there.”

On the subject of education, Gladys is wistful, but positive. “In my lifetime, I wish I’d had an education — I never did finish.” In regard to music education in the schools, she recalls her own experiences growing up, and she opines that it is a good idea to have music in the schools, but that it is imperative that young people complete their education. “You’ve got to have an education.”

Gladys Hightower — it strikes one that through destiny or Divine Providence, this name is decidedly poetic and apropos for a woman of her accomplishments. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, though, she is one extremely down-to earth, gracious lady. She admits, “Although in my life I’ve had some good days and some hills to climb — also some weary days and some sleepless nights, but when I look around and think things over, all my good days outweigh my bad days. I won’t complain.”

If the foregoing thoughts by Gladys Hightower aren’t lyric material for a glorious Blues song, then we don’t fully understand the character of that beloved American genre!