It was 1956.

Gas was 22 cents a gallon and President Dwight D. Eisenhower faced a challenge from Democrat Adlai Stevenson for the White House.

It was also the year Jean Vernon joined the choir at Temple Beth Sholom in Danville.

“This relationship has inspired us and exalted our worship,” long-time temple member Sam Kushner said during a celebration of her 63-year service held Sunday afternoon.

About 60-70 people attended the event marking Vernon’s retirement from the choir at the temple on Sutherlin Avenue.

Temple Beth Sholom is a Reform Jewish temple, which practices a liberal form of Judaism. For example, members are not required to follow traditional dietary laws or wear a yarmulke (traditional head covering).

After pointing out the price of gas and presidential politics from 63 years ago, Kushner also made lighthearted references to Elvis Presley and the controversy ignited by his “swiveling hips” at that time.

Vernon, 83, told the Danville Register & Bee her years with the choir began when she was invited to sing at Temple Beth Sholom.

Vernon earned undergraduate and graduate music degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North and UNC at Greesnboro, North Carolina, respectively.

“Voice was my instrument in college,” she said during an interview before the celebration.

“I’m just so pleased and surprised,” Vernon said of the event in her honor.

Temple member Mira Becher praised Vernon’s service and talent.

“Jean is a tremendous asset not only with her voice but in the community,” Becher said.

The event also featured traditional Hebrew songs performed by the choir, including “Hineh Mah Tov,” “Modim Anachnu Lach (We Give Thanks)” and “The Song of the Sea.”

Gary Tucker, pastor at College Park Baptist Church who has performed for the temple choir for five years, played Mozart’s “Andante in C Major” on the flute, and organist Baxter Jennings performed Felix Mendelssohn’s “Sonata No. 2, Allegro Maeastoso E Vivace.”

Vernon has played a significant role in Tucker’s musical development over the past few decades, he said.

“She’s been a musical mentor to me the last 30 years,” Tucker said during an interview at a reception following the event.

Just before Vernon spoke during the celebration, Temple Beth Sholom President Jo Ann Howard presented her with a gift — a hand-blown clef.

Vernon recalled her early days at the temple, when it had no air-conditioning.

“This sanctuary would be filled with families,” Vernon said.

She remembered the bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs — the Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies for boys and girls, respectively.

She also humorously recalled being told to try to be a mensch, and then asking what it was. “Just be a good person,” she was told. A mensch is a person of integrity and honor.

“I’ve certainly tried to be that,” Vernon, who is not Jewish, said during her speech.

Howard told the Danville Register & Bee that Vernon is also being honored with a plaque on the pew where she would sit.

“She has been the mainstay of the choir,” Howard said during an interview after the ceremony.

Kushner told attendees that Vernon has seen lots of changes over the past several decades in the congregation.

“She shared our joys, she shared our sadness,” Kushner said, jokingly pointing out that she helped “to educate” 11 rabbis during her years there.

“Remember, this is your Jewish home and our arms will always be stretched out to you,” Kushner said.

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Crane reports for the Register & Bee. He can be reached at (434) 791-7987.

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