By Meda Kessler
Photos by Jen Burner
Gary Cole danced everywhere with his wife, Nina, from ballrooms to the dementia center where she lived at the end of her life. He honors her love of the arts with a special gift.
They had a romance that lasted more than 60 years. Now Gary Cole honors the memory of his beloved wife, Nina, by ensuring that others get to experience one of her life’s greatest joys. This past fall, he launched the Nina Maria Cole Music and Arts Series at the James L. West Center for Dementia Care.
The namesake series offers dementia-friendly performances of music, dance and theater at the care facility where Nina lived the last years of her life. It’s a fitting tribute to a music lover who, even during her own struggles with memory loss, was known for comforting others.
Their love story began at Gary’s 5th birthday party. Nina, then 4 years old, gave a copy of The Thirsty Pony, inscribed by her mother, to the birthday boy. “I always told her I fell in love with her at my 5th birthday party because of her beautiful smile,” says Gary. “We started dating as soon as I could drive — at 14.” Nina, whose great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, grew up on a ranch along Marine Creek Lake. “We spent a lot of time out in those hills, horseback riding and hunting,” says Gary.
While her father’s appointment as assistant secretary of the Army would take Nina’s family to Washington, D.C., for a couple years, the young couple resumed dating as soon as she returned to Texas, and both went on to attend SMU. They married in June of 1955. Gary finished law school, and then served three years in the Army.
When the Coles returned home to Fort Worth for his civilian career, they embraced local culture, buying season tickets to the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and Casa Mañana musicals. They got involved with the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition when it started in 1962.
The couple enjoyed dancing to music as much as listening to it. “We used to go to the casino at Lake Worth; there was a big dance hall, and the walls would open up so you could get a breeze,” says Gary.
While they knew how to have fun, they also worked hard. Gary pursued his career in law, and Nina sold residential real estate and wrote a society column for The Fort Worth Press. They raised three children.
Nina remained as enchanted by ranch life as she was by music; the Coles attended every stock show rodeo, as well as every Cliburn competition. Gary remembers a Cliburn jury luncheon they hosted at which she insisted on serving a ranch staple — fried chicken. “I said, ‘These are Europeans, they don’t understand fried chicken, they’ll try to use knives and forks,’ ” says Gary. “She said, ‘Just tell them at the beginning that you have to eat fried chicken with your fingers.’ ”
He has many stories about Nina and their vibrant life together. And music created some happy moments even after her dementia worsened. During one of his many visits to the West Center, Gary noticed that a music therapist had a lot of success getting through to patients, so he, too, began using music to connect with Nina. “Music engages a different part of the brain; it responds even when other parts of the brain are shut down,” says Gary. “When she would get frustrated with her inability to find words, I’d pull out my iPhone
and play music. Fortunately, I knew what music she loved — Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller.”
After Nina died in 2016, Gary began working on establishing the music series; he already knew who to ask about adding some of the area’s best musicians to the schedule. Since the series debut in August, residents of the West Center — and others impacted by dementia — have been treated to live concerts, either on-site or at a nearby church, from the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, the Fort Worth Classic Guitar Society, singers from the TCU opera program and Cliburn finalists, too. Keeping things “dementia-friendly” means to roll with it if there are outbursts from the audience. “When we had the opera here, one of the residents started singing along, and it turned out that he knew some arias,” says Gary. “He was a fairly good singer; the opera people were amazed and were clapping and cheering him on.”
Nina’s love of music and desire to comfort others lives on in the series. As the notes work their magic in unlocking memories, music has been known to inspire dementia patients to tap their feet, clap their hands, sing or even get up and move.
“We danced in the hall here at the center,” says Gary. “She loved to dance, and we danced right till the end of her life.”
Nina Maria Cole Music and Arts Series James L. West Center for Dementia Care’s new performing arts series offers programs of live music, dance and theater. In addition to serving West Center residents, the performances are open to other dementia patients and their caregivers, too (registration required; call 817-877-1199, ext. 140).
- Fort Worth Opera young artists, Feb. 18
- Sheran Keyton’s DVA Productions, March 18
- Robert Putnam’s Just Jazz band, April 16
- Texas Ballet Theater in the fall
To donate to the program or for more information, call 817-877-1199 or visit jameslwest.org.