WEST LIBERTY — For decades, Rose W. May has been the musical heart and soul of the West Liberty United Methodist Church.
A retired Morgan County English teacher, she has played graduations, baptisms, weddings and funerals. The March 2 tornado that ripped through town took her church, her house and her grand piano. It even took her sheet music.
But it couldn't take her songs.
Sunday, as members of several churches destroyed by the tornado gathered in an auditorium at Morehead State University's West Liberty campus, Rose May was there, pouring out the old hymns like balm on wounded souls.
Never miss a local story.
"This is the first time she's played since it happened," said her daughter, Terri Walters of Pikeville. "She is at home, isn't she? At her keyboard."
Sparing a wink over the top or a wave to well-wishers, May swept through a medley of church classics, with a few other emotional favorites mixed in.
She tried to keep it upbeat, and she almost threw in the school fight song but decided that might not be proper.
As members of the congregations of the Methodist, First Baptist, Broadway First Church of God, Church of Christ and Christian churches — all destroyed — hugged and wiped away tears, Rose May's My Old Kentucky Home was the soundtrack of their emotional reunion.
Nine days earlier, May had been on the phone with Walters as the tornado approached. When her daughter said, "It's coming," May calmly said goodbye, picked up her purse and headed for the basement.
On the way down the stairs, she heard a terrible sound, and the roof lifted off her house. She made it to cover in a corner. Once it got quiet again, the basement wall had fallen away and May just walked right out, unharmed and unafraid. She's staying with Walters in Pikeville but knew she had to come to Sunday's service.
"She's doing remarkably well," Walters said. "I thought this might be too much for her, but she hit the keyboard and she hasn't stopped. Musicians, that's their heart."
Jane Murray, the Methodist organist, remembered seeing May after the tornado, so glad they were both alive and well.
"The first thing she said to me was, 'Were our instruments OK?' But they were both gone," Murray said.
Their minister, the Rev. Kenneth W. Jett Jr., said Sunday's service, with May, "means a lot to me. There is something stable and that is the Christian community. We may have lost our church, but we haven't lost our heart."
Jett, his wife, Jeanene, their cat, Kit Carson, and three other people huddled in the basement while 150-mph winds reduced their historical white-brick church to rubble.
"I got out by the grace of God, and by the skin of my teeth, just like you did," Jett told the congregation. "We were scared together. I was so scared I don't remember the noise, just the video."
About 250 people came to Sunday's service, including several congregations, including the Mennonites, whose churches were undamaged but who came to show support.
"What a wonderful turnout we have today to praise the Lord for what we do have," said Mark Walter, chairman of the board of the United Methodist Church. "We have fellowship with one another to start the healing process. Some are sore, some are bruised. All of our hearts are bruised. But we know you're going to heal that in time."
The Rev. David Cook, pastor of the West Liberty First Baptist Church, also lost his house.
"The church is not that building. The church is those of us assembled here today to love the Lord," Cook said.
The Rev. Paul Casteel of the West Liberty Christian Church said the only things to survive in his church office were his Bible, buried under about a foot of insulation, and a statue on his desk "with the inscription Jeremiah 29: 'God has a plan.' ... And West Liberty, Morgan County, God has a plan. We will be better for it."
On Sunday morning, there were prayers and praise and music, and maybe the healing did begin.
As one, the Methodists, Baptists, Christians and Mennonites sang Amazing Grace, with Rose May at the piano for all four verses.
"It was wonderful. I had a purpose for my hands. It felt good," Rose May said afterward. "I knew if I could get the chance, this could be a happy occasion."
Without her book, she played from memory.
"I just played everything I could think of. I was playing from my head," Rose May said.
"Head and heart," Terri Walters added.