Courtenay McKelvy, a voice major from Juilliard, an actress, entertainer, and lover of Bach, has been widowed twice. With an effervescent personality, she makes volunteering in her new community a priority. Her rescued pooch, Skippy is never far from her side. Courtenay is now in her 80’s and busy as ever. She came to live in the quintessential New England village of Stonington Borough in Connecticut just a few years back, to be closer to family, but travels throughout her life have taken her far and wide.
She grew up during the depression, moving wherever her mother could get work. Her parents were divorced and she attended 19 different schools before she graduated high school. She went on to study opera at Juilliard in New York and sang with the Pittsburgh Opera Society. “Not opera”, she points out, but no less impressive, Courtenay performed at Radio City Music Hall and the Palace Theater. She became a CAT, short for civilian actress technician with Army Special Services where she entertained the troops in Germany after World War II had ended. She went for six months and stayed for three years.
“I liked to sing and since I was trained, it was nice to perform and get paid for something I enjoyed doing.”
After returning to New York she met Robert M. Raymond at a performance venue where she was singing. He impressed her with his background attending Yale University followed by Harvard Law School. He changed his mind about going into law and became a banker. They married in 1953, and created a life in California where he was originally from. “It was very exciting really,” said Courtenay. “He answered an ad in the Wall Street Journal for “banker wanted.” And just as he turned 40 years old he became a bank president down in San Diego. We rented Cliff Robertson’s house, (a 6,000 square foot oceanfront estate) in La Jolla for $450 a month. It sold a couple years ago for 25 million.” The couple raised four children together and Robert’s job took them to Oregon and eventually Chicago.
“He was really very handsome and funny and smart,” says Courtenay offering to show a picture. “I was very blessed. It was a very happy marriage. We had a good life.” She was a traditional housewife back then and when her youngest was in 5th or 6th grade she started working part time for Girl Scouts.
Their picture perfect marriage ended after 27 years when Robert died from cancer in 1980 at the age of 57, after five months in the intensive care unit. Courtenay was invited to join a support group but it just wasn’t time. “I couldn’t do it,” she says. “It was just such a personal agony. I couldn’t imagine going into a group of strangers and talking about the pain. I think you feel so totally bereft. But I had these children (one in high school and the rest in college and in their 20’s), and I was absolutely determined they were going to go to college and have good lives, as normal as possible.”
Within a few years Courtenay met James McKelvy, who had an agency called the Mark Foster Music Company in Illinois that published, edited and arranged music. The owner of the agency she worked for had introduced them years prior, and they kept bumping into each other at music conventions. Four years after Robert’s death Courtenay married James McKelvy. It was 1984.
“He was a wonderful musician, he truly was…and did beautiful arrangements of music. His thesis had been on Bach’s fugues and I like Bach a lot,” says Courtenay smiling. “He was gentle, kind, nice and very modest. He was highly regarded by his peers. We were married almost 19 years.”
James encouraged her to start her own agency and she did just that in the late 1980’s, piggybacking his success by calling it Mark Foster Music Tours. They were living near San Francisco. On one occasion, when he went into the city for a music convention, he was mugged. He crawled into the hotel garage and when they found him, Courtenay was called.
A few months later he struggled to complete Red Cross disaster training forms. “This was my first heads up that something was wrong. He had Alzheimer’s. I’m convinced this mugging and hit on the head triggered his problem.” They went to Stanford Hospital that collaborated with the Veterans’ Administration for his care. He had been in World War II serving as a warrant officer and band leader. The doctor suggested that she attend a support group because it could help Jim. At that point she would have done anything to help.
“We went there and it was a group of couples, not all married, meeting together, and then the caregivers and patients met separately. The facilitator was amazing. It was a lifeline. I’m still in touch with people from that support group today. It can make all the difference in the world to go to a good support group. Earlier with Bob, I couldn’t do it. But the trigger this time was when they said this will help my husband.”
“Funny things happen with Alzheimer’s. We were invited to dinner at the home of another couple in the group. I was driving and it was before GPS,” recalls Courtenay. “Jim was giving me directions and was trying to be helpful but it was a hard place to find. Finally I stopped the car and said, “God help me.” And Jim said, “I’m trying.” I’ll always remember that. I started to laugh and it broke the tension. He died in 2003 on Bach’s birthday.”
Jim’s company was sold and Courtenay closed hers. She had been to New England as a child and came to visit her daughter in Pawcatuck, Connecticut in 2006 and liked it so much she kept visiting and finally moved to Stonington permanently.
“I think that the main thing is to keep busy. I was going to the gym three times a week, and do some yoga and go to a writing group.” The weekly writing group at the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center is facilitated by David Madden. “It’s almost like a therapy group. There’s camaraderie and sharing our stories with different writing styles. And David always makes you feel good about something you’ve written.” With a group of more than a dozen men and women from all backgrounds, the stories that come from David’s writing prompts are varied and interesting.
Through the Christ Church of Westerly, in Rhode Island, Courtenay serves on the arts commission which provides three free concerts each year that are open to the public. She also works with the organization, Crafters and Living Closet, a ministry that provides necessary personal and household items that cannot be obtained from local food pantries, to those in need. She also helps put on a dinner at the Warm Center, a local emergency shelter and soup kitchen. She is a literacy volunteer, teaching English as a second language, and volunteers her time with the Salt Marsh Opera Guild.
“Volunteering fills a void. You always receive more than you give. And you always work with nice people. But after the loss of a spouse, it’s an open wound. You can’t jump into everything immediately. There has to be some healing period. But if you can help make life easier for someone else, it’s a blessing for you too.
You go around feeling like no one understands and no one knows what I’m going through. Each case is different. But it helps with the healing. You don’t forget the person you loved and shared your life with. You never forget them. But it isn’t like an open wound all the time. The main thing is to stay positive, keep a positive outlook. There are times when that is easier than others.”
This same woman who has been on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, has traveled the world bringing music to millions and whose absolute favorite works are by Bach, has a favorite quote by Dr. Seuss – “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” And she is.