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Nancy Tufts, founder of D.C. bell-ringing group, 102

WASHINGTON -- Nancy Poore Tufts marched for women's suffrage when she was 7, lived in China and the Philippines as a girl and drove ambulances and streetcars in Washington during World War II.

She was best known, however, as a church organist and choir director who founded Washington's first handbell-ringing group in 1954 -- and as the source of fresh bamboo that was fed to the pandas at the National Zoo. She was 102 when she died Sept. 16 of congestive heart failure at Tulip Hill Farm, her home in Fort Washington, Md. A friend, Charles Davidson, confirmed her death.

A skilled pianist, organist and singer with three degrees in music, Tufts spent more than 60 years as the music director at several Washington area churches. She often presented recitals and continued to work as an organist and choir director into her 90s.

In 1952, she ordered a set of 14 bells from the Whitechapel foundry in England after hearing a group of bell ringers in Boston.

"I thought that it was so beautiful," she said in a video for the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, "and it would be such a splendid activity to add to my church program, because it is especially good for children -- or for all people from 9 to 90." It took two years for the bells, each tuned to a different musical tone, to arrive in Washington. Within weeks, Tufts trained a group of bell ringers and staged a holiday concert.

For the next 33 years, she led the Potomac English Handbell Ringers in performances throughout the region, including frequent performances at Washington National Cathedral, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and countless convalescent centers and retirement homes.

When she retired in 1987, her collection of bells had grown to nearly 80. Hundreds of people, most of them beginning as children, had performed in her groups.

Nancy Narcissa Poore was born July 6, 1910, in London. Her father was a U.S. Army doctor, and the family lived in various foreign places when Tufts was a girl.

While living in Columbia, S.C., during World War I, she marched with her mother for women's voting rights. The family came to Fort Washington in the 1920s.

Tufts received bachelor's and master's degrees in music from Syracuse University in New York. She received a second master's, in sacred music, from Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan in the 1930s.

Her husband of 35 years, William O. Tufts, who was also a church organist and music teacher, died in 1976. They had no children.

After her family's Asian sojourns, Mrs. Tufts' mother brought back many mementos, including bamboo seeds, which were planted at Tulip Hill. Decades later, after the National Zoo acquired its first pandas, there was concern about where to obtain a supply of fresh bamboo, the primary food of pandas.

"I saw that the bamboo was just taking over this place," Mrs. Tufts told the Chicago Tribune in 2001, "so I called or wrote them and offered for them to come down."

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