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A Life: ‘Singing was part of Nancy’s mission’

  • Nancy Papademas celebrates her mother Mae Papademas' 93rd birthday in 2016. Nancy developed her love of singing from her mother. (Family photograph)

  • Nancy Papademas' family moved to Lebanon from Nashua in the mid-1960s, and she graduated from Lebanon High School in 1969. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/19/2020 10:41:40 PM
Modified: 1/21/2020 2:52:32 PM

LYME — She had a reputation as a fierce advocate and a serial caregiver, but one thing above all preceded Nancy Papademas wherever she went during her 67 years, the last 62 in the Upper Valley.

Oh, that voice — and the soul that drove it.

“At a cousin’s memorial service, I was reminiscing in front of everybody Jim ever knew, and was hoping that they’d join me on The Beatles’ In My Life,” Papademas’ sister, Enfield resident Linda Papademas recalled last week. “But I was too upset and couldn’t lead the song myself. From the back of the room, Nancy started out, ‘There are places I remember/All my life, though some have changed,’ in a nice strong voice, and everybody joined in.”

Until the rare disease, amyloidosis, consumed her final months, Nancy Papademas, who died on Aug. 14, 2019, used that voice to enthrall audiences in church sanctuaries and courtrooms, funeral and nursing homes and the homes of her wide and deep circle of friends and family.

“She was a very accomplished alto who was passionate about putting music out in the world for people,” Maureen Burford, former piano accompanist for The Thetford Chamber Singers and current music director at the First Congregational Church in Thetford, said last week. “I think singing was part of Nancy’s mission to bring positive, harmonious energy into the world.”

The professional side of that mission took shape in the mid- and late 1970s. After graduating from the University of Vermont with a degree in anthropology, Papademas detoured to Vermont Law School and then took over the legal practice of her father N. George Papademas — making her, at the time, one of the first 200 female lawyers in New Hampshire.

“She knew the intricacies of the law and how to apply it,” said Tim Odell, Papademas’ husband of almost 34 years. “She offered her services even when others couldn’t afford it because it was the right thing to do. Most lawyers take years to gain the experience that Nancy gained in the first few years of practice.

“I always considered her a social worker lawyer, in that she did whatever she needed to for her clients regardless of their ability to pay. She would take on any case of need that was brought to her.”

Those clients remembered her long after she retired.

“I was ushering at Shaker Bridge Theatre about a month ago and said, ‘hello’ to another usher and told him my name,” Linda Papademas said. “He says, ‘Oh, were you a lawyer?’ And I say, ‘No, that was my sister.’ And he speaks spontaneously for 10 minutes about how she gave him invaluable advice and got him through the entire process of being unexpectedly named the executor of his great-aunt’s will. He’s a bit emotional as he talks about how much he still appreciates it. All the time, this happens.”

Nancy had honed her instinct for rescue with her little sister, seven years her junior.

“When we went up in the Ferris wheel,” Linda Papademas recalls, “she’d say, ‘Put your hand on my arm if you get scared.’ ”

No wonder her Lebanon High School classmate Marian Cawley, among many others, “called her ‘Mamma.’ ”

“It started as kind of a playful insult, but it stuck,” Cawley, who lives in Norwich, recalled last week. “Even some of the Dartmouth campus policemen called her that. She helped many of our friends out of some serious jams — staying up all night with a friend who was withdrawing from heroin, helping another reintegrate into the U.S. after living in Canada for 30-plus years. She was a force for the underdog, too, both in the courts and out of them, she advised plenty of people, even after she stopped practicing.”

Before starting her legal practice, that advice included at least one match-making success.

“She introduced me to my (future) husband on the last day of their first year of law school,” Cawley said. “And I introduced her to the Thetford Chamber Singers, the group she sang with for the rest of her life.”

That musical match sustained her, even while she devoted most of the rest of her time to Odell, her daughter Calla, her mother Mae Papademas and Macy Riviere, her sponsored daughter in the Caribbean.

“Even though she was never going to develop a glorious soloist’s voice, at the same time, living her life without singing was not an option,” said Kevin Quigley, the chamber ensemble’s director since 2013. “She always approached choral singing as an underdog: Knuckling down to do the work, making sure she was measuring up.”

One of the songs that Quigley brought to the chamber singers early in his tenure was composer Ruth Elaine Schram’s Come from Heaven Above, whose lyrics inspired Papademas at the very first rehearsal.

“She made a point of saying that she really connected with it,” Quigley said. “We talked about how it starts softly and is a pleasant tune, but that it is also an incantation, a magic spell. One can’t do it meekly. You can’t do it politely. You need willing access to your own sense of power.”

Which is why last summer, in preparing the set list for the chamber singers’ 2019 series of yuletide concerts, Quigley chose to revisit the Schram piece in hopes that Papademas would live long enough to hear it, if not to sing it.

“When I was putting it together, she and I would talk online fairly frequently,” Quigley recalled. “She’d been asking for years and years to bring it back. The text itself is an invocation, asking for help from heavenly powers to make the world right again.”

In the end, the chamber singers belted it out while dedicating the concert at Papademas’ church on Thetford Hill to their late alto. In that same church during her memorial service in September, fellow vocalists and loved ones had joined forces on Lift Every Voice and Sing, which became an anthem of the civil-rights movement after NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson wrote the words and his brother John Rosamond Johnson put it to music.

“I felt as though she was there,” Maureen Burford said, “in the celebration and the music.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.


Lyme resident Nancy Papademas died on Aug. 14, 2019. An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect date.

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