The Way We Were: Agnes Stack

The Way We Were: Agnes Stack
Agnes Stack jamming on banjo, November 2021

Born in Ohio in 1935, the youngest of 11 children, Agnes Stack was the only one among her six sisters and four brothers who had any musical talent. When she was 4 years old, she made herself a cornstalk fiddle, sat on the back porch, and began singing “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” a traditional American folk song. Stack doesn’t recall it directly, but that’s the story her mother often recounted. At 11 years old, she taught herself to play the banjo, one that her brother-in-law had given her. “He told me that if when he came back the next month to visit I could play a song on it, he’d let me keep it.” So, she did. He kept his promise, and she kept the banjo.

Agnes Stack, Women’s Army Corps, 1953
Agnes Stack, Women’s Army Corps, 1953

In 1953, just one month after her 18th birthday, Stack joined the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and was sent to Fort Lee, Virginia for basic training. After that, she went to International Business Machines (IBM) accounting school at Fort Harrison, Indiana. She was a pioneer in the field of electronic computers. “We used to have a whole row of machines that would do what one little computer does right now,” Stack said. At 19, she went on to duty at the Pentagon, stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia. She remembers walking to work each day, no matter what the weather, through the pedestrian tunnel. After leaving the military in 1955, Stack entered civil service.

In her 30s, Stack was a member of the Cook County Cowgirls of Chicago, a country band of four ladies who would perform locally. She never learned to read music but had a talent for playing standards and polkas by ear. A songwriter, Stack, known as Aggie, took the girls to Nashville, Tennessee in 1968 to record an album. Selections like “Walkin’ Around On The Outskirts of Romance” and “Visiting Back Home” are available today for listening on YouTube. Two members of the band are deceased now, but Stack still keeps in touch with the bass player, 96-year-old Elsie, who lives in Santa Claus, Indiana.

Stack has been in Jacksonville for 27 years. The weather brought her and her dog here from Illinois in February 1995 when she was nearly 60. “I came down here after I’d gotten marooned at work and did a couple of doughnuts on the ice. I had to get where it was warmer,” she said.

Stack chose Jacksonville for its northern locale in the state, preferring it over her second choice, St. Augustine, which she thought would be too touristy for work in her field as an electronic technician. “I don’t question where the Lord puts me. He’s always put me in the right place at the right time,” she said.

When Stack first arrived in Florida, she rented a room in Jacksonville Beach. Having earned a degree in electronics when she was 50 years old, she landed a position at ParkerVision, Inc., a business that made cameras for classrooms, cameras that allowed for three-way discussions, an original form of Zoom. For five years, Stack was doing inspections and troubleshooting for the company, and she giggles to think she had been on the cutting edge of today’s technology. Stack’s commute to ParkerVision from the beach proved cumbersome, so she moved to an apartment in Bay Meadows before buying a house in Spring Park in 1997.

Having a commendable work ethic, “I would work all the overtime I could possibly get,” Stack said. When not at the job, much of her free time was spent caring for her home and her yard by herself. She wasn’t in the habit of asking for outside help. “If I had a leak in the roof, I’d get some tar and get up there and fix it,” she said. One time, she did that on her lunch hour. She then admitted, “After that, I did get a new roof, let’s put it that way.”

Cook County Cowgirls, circa 1969. Elsie on bass, Glenna on drums, Dee on guitar, Agnes Stack far right on guitar.
Cook County Cowgirls, circa 1969. Elsie on bass, Glenna on drums, Dee on guitar, Agnes Stack far right on guitar.

She credits her mother as role model. “My mother could do anything! She was a very hard worker. She could wallpaper a room, then she could go out and dig up fence posts and make a garden,” Stack said.

Although not an official member of any particular church, Stack attended services on occasion, leaning toward the Methodists. Some weekends, she enjoyed the MOSH, Riverwalk, or side trips to St. Augustine. “All my spare time was spent at the beach when I lived out there,” she said.

After ParkerVision, Stack took a job at American Technical Ceramics (ATC), making miniscule components, ones not bigger than grains of salt, for circuit boards. “I loved that job so much, I probably still would’ve been there, but I developed macular degeneration,” she said. She was 67 years old when her failing sight forced her to retire from full-time work. She continued doing some limited work for ATC, jobs that didn’t require sharp vision, but eventually had to retire completely.

The biggest change Stack has noticed around Jacksonville is in the highway system. “Oh, my gosh, the expressways and all that, that certainly has changed a lot,” she said. When she was still able to drive, the way Stack would get in and out of town, taking Emerson Street to make her way to the Veterans Administration (VA) and using the Hart Bridge to get over the river, she said is entirely different now.

When she could, Stack used to visit with the last two of her six sisters who were remaining—one north in Ohio and one south in Deerfield Beach. But both of them are deceased now, like the others. “All in my family are gone now. I’m the only one left,” Stack said. Her last sibling died at 96 a couple of years ago.

Now 86 and legally blind, Stack continues playing bajo and guitar, instruments she’s been at for over seven decades. On most Tuesdays, Stack can be found at Faith Baptist Church on Orange Picker Road as one of a dozen or so musicians who meet there for jam sessions. They play mostly gospel, hymns, and bluegrass favorites. Residents come to listen, they bring refreshments, and they often sing along. “I really enjoy that,” Stack said.

Pre pandemic, Stack would attend music jams at a Fellowship Hall on San Jose Boulevard. Then, she had taken a bit of a break until after she’d gotten her booster shot. But she’s back to jamming now and remembers fondly the many calls she’d gotten during her absence from folks who had missed her presence.

In November, Stack had 14 people outside her house for a music jam, four musicians on the front porch and ten listeners on the lawn. It’s her great pleasure to bring musical joy to others. Due to her sight loss, she must memorize the words to every number. “Music has played a big part in my life,” she said, so she’s more than willing to go that extra necessary mile while others can read the words from a sheet of paper.

In addition to being a musician, Stack has always been an avid reader. Adult fiction is her favorite genre. When she could still see properly, she’d frequent the public library in San Marco and borrow numerous print books at one time. Now, she must listen to audio books that she borrows through the Talking Book Program. “That is a blessing,” she said. As she listens, she pictures the words just as if she were reading.

Stack is no martyr when it comes to her loss of sight. “I’m too blessed to be stressed. How many people I’ve met because of being legally blind! I wouldn’t have met them otherwise,” she said. People from local organizations like Aging True and Hart Felt Ministries Stack is ever grateful for. They assist her with Meals on Wheels, transportation to the VA, grocery shopping, lawn maintenance, and other tasks too. “If I didn’t need help, I never would have met those people. And they are wonderful! I want to give them all the credit in the world,” she said.

Agnes Stack with Corkie, 2021
Agnes Stack with Corkie, 2021

In part, it’s because of assistance from local agencies such as these that Stack is still in her Spring Park home. She resides there with her dog named Corkie, a different pet than the one she’d brought with her upon her Florida arrival all those years ago. “My faithful little terrier boy is 14 years old,” Stack said. With the pandemic, and when it was necessary to remain isolated inside, “He’s just been the greatest company,” Stack said of her beloved companion. She said that he has a “personality plus” and is quite smart.

In her life, Stack has rarely been without a dog. When one would pass, she’d swear that would be the last. “But I’d always end up rescuing another one—see one somewhere, pick it up, and bring it home.” she said. Being a dog owner, Stack has done a lot of walking in her time. All that exercise has contributed, somewhat, to her longevity, she admitted. That and the Lord. “That’s His plan,” she said.

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

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