Originally published June 4, 2012.
He can remember names from more than 50 years ago, he keeps a paper shredder ready for his Social Security mail, he plays the piano every day and boy, can he tell a story.
Henry McAlister, born Dec. 3, 1914, near Clarksdale, MS, now lives in a little house on the south side of Huntington, a still very independent 97-year-old.
For McAlister, Huntington has been his on-and-off home since the '60s, but the road to get here has been a long, eventful one. And he isn't ready to slow down.
"They've been trying to get me in a nursing home, but I'm not ready for that yet," McAlister says cheerily.
At 97, he is far from inactive. Visitors are in and out of McAlister's home and he still plays the piano and organ every week at Banquo Christian Church - an activity that has followed him throughout his life.
McAlister remembers living in Mississippi as a 10-year-old and playing "music" on his mother's brass bed rungs with sticks, striking different tones until she would finally shoo him out of the room.
Later, McAlister got himself some music education and learned to read music to play the piano. He says he played where he could find instruments, often at local churches, up until he moved to Chicago in the '30s.
He married his wife Edna in 1936, and their son Brian was born in 1937. Until 1941, McAlister worked at South Central department store and managed Betty's Restaurant, which was near the Savoy Ballroom and the Regal Theater.
He says he met jazz artists including Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway when they would come into his restaurant for a bite.
"They would come over and buy hamburgers and hot dogs and all that stuff," he says.
McAlister got to be friends with the musicians and would join in their parties after night shows. He would play piano with them every once in a while, picking up what he could and learning the jazz style of music notation.
"I would get around them guys from the bands, and they would talk about improv, and I said, ‘What in the world is that?'" he remembers.
Intrigued, he tracked down books on jazz improvisation and studied it.
"I hated to play songs where I had to look up and play what I saw," he says. "I learned how to change the chords around."
In 1941, McAlister enlisted in the Army to fight in World War II. He was sent to combat in the Southwest Pacific as a staff sergeant of an electronics unit. He was responsible for manning the computer that operated the 90 mm and 40 mm guns - the first computer he had ever seen.
On tour, McAlister visited Australia, Hawaii, New Guinea and New Britain before being discharged in 1945, completing four years and eight months of service. He says he was released that December and surprised his family by walking into the house the day before Christmas.
After he returned from service, McAlister was employed as a government product inspector, monitoring the manufacturing of electronics, particularly radios. In 1961 the job took him from Chicago to Richmond, where he stayed until 1965 when he was transferred to Huntington.
McAlister continued working in Huntington on government inspections until 1974 when he was retired, living in an apartment on Walnut Street. He says in his spare time as an inspector he was always working with youth at the local churches.
"I don't know, I just always like to work with young folks," McAlister says, who still encourages youth he knows to drop by the house and visit.
One of the young men, James Scarborough, was so impressed with McAlister's piano skills that he insisted McAlister meet his father, a horn and guitar player.
Later, he asked McAlister to play the organ at his wedding held at St. Mary Catholic Church - and he asked McAlister to make it loud.
"They never asked me to play anymore at St. Mary's," he says. "We probably blew that church out."
It was while working with youth in Fort Wayne that he befriended Chester Townsend, who wanted to start a new church. Chester and his wife Francine didn't know the procedure for establishing a church, so McAlister went to the local tax office, got the necessary forms and filled them out, and started Evangelical Center Church of God in Christ.
Eventually the church wanted to make him an elder, McAlister says, but he initially refused, telling them that "if you make me an elder, you'll want me to preach, and if I preach, I'll talk about everybody."
However, after researching eldership, McAlister eventually gave in and was ordained as an elder.
He remembers attending a party once and learning that the mother of the house had been bedridden for two years.
"I said, ‘Let's pray for her!'" he recounts. McAlister gathered everyone in the house around the mother's bed, anointed her and all present with oil and prayed. He was told the next day that she started walking and moving around the house.
Evangelical Center Church of God in Christ is still in operation today on South Hanna Street in fort Wayne.
In 1974, McAlister moved into his house on Gardendale Avenue with Edna. After his retirement from government inspections, he decided he wanted to travel to every state capital. So he did. He collected patches for each state and keeps them framed in his den.
After living in Chicago for two years following the death of his wife, McAlister moved back to the area in 1991, bought a trailer and parked it on the edge of Banquo. Eventually he moved to LaFontaine, and then in 1998 moved back into his original house on Gardendale Avenue in Huntington when the son of his previous landlords tracked him down to show him the updated building.
"I looked at him and I said, ‘What kind of rent are you going to give me?'" McAlister says after he saw the newly remodeled house.
While in Huntington, McAlister also got involved with the local Boy Scouts, becoming the supervisor of Eagle Scout service projects. He led Scout trips to places like California, and collected troop badges from every state.
These days McAlister's life contains less of the jazz stars, computerized weaponry and Boy Scouts. From time to time he plays with the Liston Creek Gospel Group, based in LaFontaine, and still keeps tabs on his "youngsters."
For now, McAlister's primary concern is the occasional round of gout.
"It'll make an old man out of me," he complains, rubbing his knees. "The only thing slowing me down is that."