South Dakota Woman Spreads Love of Polka

Hometown Heroes, People
on November 3, 2002

Mary Ann Stastny and her accordion have been lifting spirits and voices at the Good Samaritan Senior Citizens Center for more than three decades.

Resident “groupies” tap their toes, clap their hands, and join Stastny in singing polkas, waltzes, and other old-time favorites in German, Czech, or English. The songs, from religious to country-western, spark memories—and some residents forget their wheelchairs and walkers to dance to Stastny’s music.

“Sometimes they’re down and I cheer them up,” says Stastny, 65, who began performing at the center in Wagner, S.D., in 1968. “Sometimes I’m down, and they cheer me up.”

Once a month, her cheerful voice comes over the Good Samaritan intercom, announcing the beginning of another hour of music and chitchat for the center’s 70 residents. On holidays or special occasions, she may dress in a grass skirt, cowboy garb, native Czech dress, or other appropriate costume.

“She is definitely the favorite,” says Michele Jeffers, center administrator. “After her performance they’re all beaming.” Jeffers recalls a former resident with terminal cancer who came to her the day after Stastny’s performance and told her that “yesterday I forgot I had cancer.”

During her shows, Stastny invites residents to request songs she might not know. She is seldom stumped—but just in case, her husband, Joe, 77, lugs along a suitcase with 30 pounds of sheet music she’s been collecting since she was a child in Bow Valley, Neb.

She and Joe spend about a week each month on the road, bringing music and cheer to senior citizens centers across southeast South Dakota and northeast Nebraska. It’s a solo act now, but when her five children were growing up they performed at nursing homes—and professionally—as the Stastny Family Band. Son Chuck still performs professionally with The Coppersmiths, a polka band based in Yankton, S.D., (pop. 13,528) which tours the Polka Belt of the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions.

But no matter her schedule then or now, Mary Ann has always made time for her volunteer work in and around Wagner (pop. 1,675). “I just love to do it,” she says. “It’s for me as much as it is for the residents.”

Stastny once played for a Czech woman celebrating her 100th birthday at the Good Samaritan center. She had been deaf since she was 25 but came to the performance anyway. As Mary Ann played the popular Czech waltz Sweskova Alej (The Prune Song), the lady must have felt the accordion’s vibration. She began singing in her native language, in a weak voice, that song remembered from childhood.

“We all had a tear in our eye when she finished,” Stastny recalls.

Stastny, whose smile is contagious, has known most of the residents nearly all of her life. She weaves in a personal comment about each person in the audience with many of her songs. Jim Nelson, 87, who isn’t even a resident of the home but comes to hear Stastny, likes the ever-popular polka In Heaven There Is No Beer. Stastny substitutes his name into the song at the appropriate spot and it always brings the house down.

Annie Koupal, 89, who grew up speaking Czech, can’t wait for Stastny’s concerts. She’s always there in the center’s lounge or dining room well before show time. “I don’t want to miss her,” she says in accented English. Koupal particularly likes The Prune Song and U Studanky Sedela (At the Spring) waltz.

Although Stastny’s eyesight is failing from diabetes and her 28-pound accordion seems to grow heavier on her shoulders each year, she has no plans of discontinuing her monthly Good Samaritan performance. “When I can’t carry that old accordion around anymore, I can always sit down at the piano and sing,” she says.