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Blind gospel singer shares vision

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Resident Kenneth Burk, originally of Bovard, listens intently and sings along while Larry Ahlborn of Youngwood performs at Mountainview Specialty Care on July 5, 2012 at the Unity Township facility. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review

At age 71 and legally blind, Larry Ahlborn navigates the nation — sometimes spending days on buses — visiting churches to sing gospel songs.

As of this summer, Ahlborn of Youngwood has spent 50 years “saved and singing.”

Over that half-century, he's sung and played piano in more than 1,400 churches across the country. He has no plans to end his work.

“At 71, I don't see any need to sit at home,” Ahlborn said. “I'd rather wear out than rust out.”

He's visited 47 states — all but Alaska, Montana and North Dakota.

These days, he visits 12 to 15 states regularly and performs nearby shows. He'll add 25 new churches to his schedule this year.

Ahlborn can't drive, so a friend shuttles him to local performances, and he relies on Greyhound and Westmoreland Transit for others.

Ahlborn can easily quote travel times — 56 hours from Pittsburgh to Phoenix by bus and 33 hours from Pittsburgh to Tampa.

He can't bring a piano along, so he makes use of what's available at each venue.

“I play whatever they have,” he said. “If they have an electric piano, I'll play that. If they have a baby grand, I'll play that. If they have an old, broken-down piano, I'll play that.”

He loves Southern quartet-style music and plays mostly by ear and memorization.

Being legally blind since birth means that what others can see at 40 feet away, he can't see until it's 4 feet away, Ahlborn explained.

“I don't dwell on my eyesight,” he said. “I don't believe in the words ‘handicap' or ‘self-pity.'”

Ahlborn always wanted to play the piano, even though his family didn't get one until he was 12. As a boy, he'd pretend to play, imagining the stairs as a piano.

Ahlborn has produced at least 25 albums, including some of his own songs and some old church songs.

He also performs at rest homes, including a monthly visit to celebrate birthdays at Mountainview Specialty Care Center in Unity.

Jackie White, activities director at the 137-bed skilled nursing facility, calls Ahlborn's music uplifting.

“Larry comes in and shares humor with the group,” she said. “He really contributes to their quality of life.”

Earlier this month, Ahlborn celebrated patients' July birthdays with a repertoire that included patriotic and Christmas songs to encourage them to “think cool.”

Ahlborn had a broad smile as he sang in a crisp voice and played the piano.

Most people attending sat in wheelchairs, singing and clapping along.

The facility has been around more than 35 years, White said, and Ahlborn has been visiting there for at least 24 of them.

Marie Lynch, a friend of Ahlborn's for 48 years, drives him to local performances, including those at Mountainview.

“I've never seen him do two programs the same in 48 years,” said Lynch, of Hempfield. “You never know what he's going to do. He's led by the spirit.”

Before he began his traveling gospel work, Ahlborn sang for a Pittsburgh-based men's gospel trio, the Tribunes.

Since he found religion at age 22, Ahlborn, a Baptist, has been hosted by all faiths, including Catholic, Episcopal and Jewish.

Church members often give him a place to stay, and churches sometimes help fund his travel.

“Life is exciting — a lot of times it's what we make of it,” he said. “We need to see more sunshine, and we need to enjoy it more.”

Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or [email protected].

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