Vernetta Westry, 81, 'strong' gospel singer, day care center owner

November 13, 1998|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Vernetta Westry, a gospel singer who performed in a deep, rich voice at revivals and church galas throughout Baltimore and along the East Coast, died Tuesday of heart failure in Atlantic City, N.J., where she had lived for the past two years.

Mrs. Westry, 81, lived in West Baltimore for most of her life and operated a day care center out of her home for many years. She was an effective teacher, friends said, who promised parents that preschool-age youngsters who attended her school would "do more than just nap and play 'Duck Duck Goose' " before they left.

"She meant that, too. She had them trying to read and trying to do the simple things, like adding and subtracting -- things that they would soon learn in elementary school," said Thelma Mays of Baltimore, a longtime friend who helped run the school.

Mrs. Westry's first love was singing gospel music. For nearly three decades, she sang sweet gospel in churches and was a regular performer on a weekly Annapolis gospel radio program in the early 1960s.

"There was no better gospel voice than Vern Westry," said Glen Frazier, a friend who heard Mrs. Westry in concert many times. "So clear, so strong."

As a child, Mrs. Westry sang gospel and played the piano and organ in youth church choirs. By the time she was 12, she sang with adult choirs and was the featured voice for many.

"Even as a kid, she could belt out the hymns," said Ruth Sweeney of Baltimore, who performed in choirs with Mrs. Westry as a youngster. "With equal emotion, she could sing the slower or the more upbeat gospel songs."

At 18, Mrs. Westry formed Heaven's Singers, a female quartet that performed at many Baltimore churches and revivals. The group's popularity grew quickly, and it gave concerts in Washington and Virginia.

Mrs. Westry wasn't able to make enough money from the performances, so she worked retail jobs throughout much of her musical career, friends said.

"Back then, in the '30s, '40s and '50s, there wasn't much of a chance to make it in the gospel music -- especially in the black gospel music world -- because you couldn't get a record contract and you didn't get to perform in the bigger concert halls," Ms. Sweeney said.

"That was her downfall, being born too soon. If she had come around in the '60s or '70s, she'd have been a household name."

A Baltimore native, the former Vernetta Smith graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in the mid-1930s and the former Morgan State College in the 1940s.

She opened "A Kid's Place" in her Ashburton neighborhood in the early 1970s. The youngsters called her "Mrs. V," and she always had a waiting list of students to enroll.

She retired from singing about 1960. The day care center closed in 1988, and she moved to Atlantic City in 1996.

She married Walter Westry in 1941; he died in 1959.

A private service is scheduled tomorrow in Atlantic City.

Mrs. Westry is survived by two sons, Thomas Westry of Cleveland and Donald Westry of Baltimore; a daughter, Myra McNeely of Baltimore; three sisters, Kendra Allen of Baltimore, Sandra Smith of Columbia and Anne Stevenson of Clarksville; and five grandchildren.

Pub Date: 11/13/98

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