Norma Dee Ryan was playing the piano in the lobby of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building around the time of general conference in April 2018 when a couple from Italy stopped to listen to her play. The gentleman asked her how old she was.
“There are 88 keys on the piano and I’ll be 88 in September,” Ryan told him.
A week later, Ryan ran into the Italian couple in the Nauvoo Cafe at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. She was surprised because she thought they would have returned to Italy by then.
“Sister 88 Keys, we’re here to hear you play the piano,” Ryan remembers the gentleman saying. “And we’re going to stay for the whole hour.”
Ryan chuckled as she recounted the experience and said, “I told my kids about this and they started calling me ‘Sister 88 Keys.’”
On Monday, Nov. 25, Norma Dee Ryan, known to her family and close friends as “Granny Dee,” will retire from playing the piano in the lobby of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building after 22 and a half years. The now 89-year-old has eight children, 46 grandchildren, 78 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren.
Herbert Klopfer has been the lobby music coordinator ever since Ryan started playing at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. “She is a jewel,” Klopfer said. “She is by far the best pianist I’ve ever had. I will miss her immediately, and so will all the others.”
One of Ryan’s favorite parts of her time at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building has been meeting people from all over the world who walk by and talk to her when she is playing.
“It’s been a wonderful experience. … So many coincidences happen,” she said. For example, someone will stop and say “Oh, that’s my dad’s favorite song and we just had his funeral last week,” or, “That’s a song we played at our wedding reception.”
Ryan recalled playing “Roses of Picardy,” a well-known piece from the time of WWI, when a woman stopped and said, “I’m from Picardy!” (Picardy is a city in France).
Klopfer said Ryan is known for playing the “old-time tunes” that people remember, and she plays them by heart. “She must have 1,000 or more tunes in her mind,” he said.
One day, Ryan said she met a man from Nevada while she was playing the piano. She asked him if he, by chance, knew her uncle, Nate Hurst. The man responded, “Oh, Nate Hurst was the first Mormon I ever met” and proceeded to talk about how he joined the Church.
“It’s stuff like that… that doesn’t have anything to do with the music or anything. It’s been amazing,” Ryan said. “Every week there’s some little thing like that. It’s not earth-shaking by any means, but it just makes playing there such a delight. And I’m really going to miss it.”
Ryan was born on Sept. 7, 1930, in Blanding, Utah, to a family who loved music. Her father played the saxophone for a dance band. At age 7, her family moved to Quince Street in Salt Lake City — about six blocks away from the Hotel Utah, now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
Even though her family couldn’t afford much, Ryan said her father would set aside $1 a week to send her to the McCune School of Music and Art to take piano lessons. She remembers practicing for an hour every day.
“My parents always impressed upon me, when they gave me the money to take piano lessons, they said ‘Whatever talent you develop, you’re to use it for the Church,’ which I’ve always done,” Ryan said.
She recalled playing at age 10 for her Primary in the 19th Ward of the Salt Lake Stake when the regular pianist didn’t show up. She grew up playing for various Church meetings and later served as ward organist several times.
Ryan lived all over the United States with her family and has performed at restaurants, dancing schools, roadshows, variety programs and funerals. She also played the piano professionally for Nordstrom department stores in the Northwest.
She returned to Salt Lake in 1995. The following year, she began playing one day a week at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. “I missed very few times of not being there,” Ryan said.
Ryan wrote an article for the Deseret News in 2008 about the experience she had as an 11-year-old girl when her mother took her and her siblings to meet President Heber J. Grant, the seventh president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I just remember that it was a sweet experience and left a lasting impression on me of the importance of revering and respecting the prophet and his calling — and that my mother recognized that importance,” she wrote.