WRITING + VIDEO + PHOTO: Self-taught pianist in tune with guests, volunteers at Lord’s Diner

Self-taught pianist
Self-taught pianist

By Shelby Reynolds
Wichita Eagle intern
July 11, 2015

Over the sounds of sliding trays, the clatter of forks and knives on plates and the chatter of about 450 visitors, the tune “What a Wonderful World” drifts over the Lord’s Diner cafeteria.

“I play everything from Bach and Beethoven to Bachman-Turner Overdrive,” Chris Espey said. “I play rock; I play country; I play classical.”

Espey taught himself how to play the piano at the downtown diner that serves Wichita’s homeless and poor an evening meal. Now he returns about four nights a week to play for guests.

From troubled adult to piano player, Espey said he’s no different from the clients he performs for. Besides “unfortunate life choices,” Espey said, he has battled depression and cancer.

“I am very much a client here as anybody else,” he said. “I’m in need of help.

“I’m not the wealthiest man by any stretch of the imagination. It’d be very difficult to make ends meet without the help that I receive here at the Lord’s Diner.”

About 12 years ago, Espey said, he came to the Lord’s Diner at Central and Broadway for his first meal there and saw the piano, with a vase of red flowers and a Bible sitting on top.

“I thought that’d be something good to do with my life at that time,” he said.

The diner’s management allowed Espey to come in before opening to practice.

“He just picked up the books and kept trying, and he got better and better the more he played here and the more he learned,” said Jan Haberly, director of the Lord’s Diner. “Sometimes in the afternoon he’d come in and we’d let him play, just honing his skills a little bit.”

After about 1,000 hours of practice, Espey said, he learned to play piano; he started reading music in grade school when he played the viola.

“Why does anybody enjoy anything?” Espey asked. “It just happened to click with my personality. I’m kind of an epiphany-type person. I see something and it clicks, and I get stubborn and I do it.”

Espey is one of about four pianists who perform during the week, a diner official said. Other days he plays at First Baptist Church, about a block from the diner, and does landscaping and other odd jobs at his apartment complex.

Over the years, he said, he has built a relationship with the volunteers; the Lord’s Diner has about 6,000 volunteers in its database. On a calendar at home, he marks which groups volunteer which nights and their preference in music, whether it’s rock ’n’ roll or religious classics.

“It’s nice that he can have somewhere to share his talents,” Haberly said. “And the volunteers and guests enjoy that.

“It’s kind of an outlet for him. … He’s a very gentle, kind soul.”

The piano keeps him busy. Espey said it’s “the best medicine.”

“Most of the people here know me by first name,” Espey said. “In this neighborhood of Wichita, I’ll walk down the street, and half a dozen times … I’ll hear a ‘Hey, piano man!’

“It gives me a sense of belonging.”

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