When most people request a birthday dinner it involves a big meal at a fancy restaurant, and the occasion might be even more notable when the guest of honor is turning 92. Not so with Jean Brock.
“What I wanted for my birthday was a hot dog,” she quips. “So we went out to the asparagus shed (for a cook out) and had a lot of my longtime friends come. I just wanted something simple. Of course, Don (her son, Don Brock) cooked chicken for everyone else.”
Her big memory of the March 22 event does not have as much to do with what others gave her as it did with reminding her what she and her late husband Warren achieved.
“It’s sort of shocking,” Brock muses over the large family gathering. “You start out with two and now there’s over 40.”
The granddaughter of Imperial Valley pioneers Reuben and Mary Malan, who started farming in Brawley in 1904, Brock was born in Wasco, Calif., in 1919, one of the many stops in the Methodist pastoral career of her father William. What her father and mother Myrtha gifted to her was music, something she has generously shared through her piano and organ playing for more than 80 years.
On a surprisingly cool late morning in May the smooth chiming of piano notes is heard from her doorstep. Stopping to greet a visitor, Brock rises from the piano in the living room of her El Centro home, answers the door and explains, “ Practicing for a memorial service on Saturday. They want The Beatles.”
Though her preferences tend toward chamber music and big bands, and her regular work as an organist is Sunday mornings at the First Methodist Church in El Centro, Brock spares room for the modern.
“ ‘Yesterday,’ ‘A Day In The Life,’ ‘Let It Be,’ ” she recounts when asked her Beatles favorites. “I think they’re fantastic. Their pieces are enduring. It was a gift of talent and the right combo got together.”
Encouraged by her parents, she took to the keyboards at age 4 and by age 10 had a regular engagement playing at her Sunday school. In the ensuing eight decades, the requests haven’t stopped. As with her recent birthday party, keeping it simple seems her secret to a long, fulfilling life.
“I’ve played for many organizations all my life. It just seems to me the thing you do” with a talent, Brock says with her usual clarity.
She laments there are fewer and fewer organists, her favorite keyboard, though one local musician has caught her ear.
“Matthew Edwards does wonderful pedal work,” she says of a fellow musician who plays at local Methodist churches. “He’s just a natural.”
Brock recalls she took to the keyboards “by ear” and while she eventually learned to read music, she still relies on her instincts.
“My great-granddaughter says, ‘You’re playing a song. Where’s the music (sheet)?’ I say, ‘Up here in my head,’ ” she smiles.
Despite her vast musical talent, Brock, true to women of her era, never strayed from home. Her family’s travels led back to Imperial Valley for several years in the 1930s and that was when she met the man she would eventually marry.
“He remembered me hitting him over the head with a Sunday school paper when I was in the sixth grade,” she says of her late husband Warren. “(Later) he was a mighty senior and I was a lowly freshman.”
They married in 1940 and had four children: Don, Jim, Mary Jean and David, all of whom play a musical instrument. The couple lived in Imperial Valley until 1971 when Warren Brock’s business activities moved them to Fresno. He was a farmer and also president of Valley Nitrogen for eight years. They returned to Imperial Valley in 1994. Warren Brock passed away in 2006.
Though her residency in Imperial Valley was sporadic throughout her life, she has many memories that are fading into history as Valley pioneers and their children pass on. Her father’s homestead still stands at the southwest corner of Dogwood Road and Malan Street in Brawley. When Reuben Malan arrived in 1904, the Imperial Valley was just three years past its first settlement. Imperial was incorporated that year as the Valley’s first city and Brawley would not follow until 1908.
“My granddad said when he lived there he could see the trains starting out from El Centro, it was so clear,” Brock says in disbelief and then adds, “I think that was a tall, tall tale.”
But Brock does remember the historic snow storm of 1932, the best photos of which are enlarged in the lobby of the Sun Community Federal Credit Union branch in El Centro.
“When we had our snow we went to see some Scottish singers. But everyone went outside to see it snow. We made a snowman that lasted for a week it was so cold,” she remembers.
Her major undertaking outside the home, aside from musical performances, was working for the blood bank in Fresno in the 1980s. It was a responsibility she recalls taking very seriously.
“It’s a very important thing if you’re the one asking the questions because although they do a lot of testing, you have to ask questions to know what’s in the (prospective donor’s) blood,” Brock says.
That meticulous nature is without a doubt a mainstay of her long musical career. So is having fun with music, which she recalls learning from an eccentric uncle when her family lived in the Los Angeles area. There were plenty of keyboards around as her mother’s father was a piano tuner in Baldwin Park.
“We had extras to play. We would just play things at will. He called himself ‘Professor Screw Loose,’ ” she says of the uncle, Donald Scott. “The whole family would come out and we would entertain them.”
After more than 80 years, that enthusiasm endures.“I’ve tried needlepoint and knitting,” Brock says of some passing fancies over the years, “but you get burned out on it. With music, I haven’t. It’s my one claim to talent.”