What Blesses One, Blesses All – A Tribute To An American Dream Named Jené
By Cheryl Felicia Rhoads
About 35 years ago, fresh out of college, I was beginning my acting career. I worked part-time at The Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a runner and out-trades clerk-in-training for Merrill Lynch. In a sea of yellow and red jackets signifying runners and floor traders, many would-be performers made their way into the various exchange pits. This was one alternative to the traditional waiter’s job. It provided a means of support while waiting for that “inevitable” show business break. During this Monday through Friday weekly sojourn, individual young people marked the time in their literal pit stop on the way to their “real” careers. Few had a true interest in the commerce bustling around them that signified the American Dream. The hustle and bustle, and shouting heard above the din was the perfect analogy for those struggling to find their way.
Among all those stressed out faces, a young woman—taller than most—glided through all the chaos with an easy manner and a broad and beaming smile. I had often noticed her radiant and friendly presence, greeting one and all as she made her way towards her destination. Then one day, I scurried towards the ladies room during that holy grail of temporary employment, the 15-minute break. All of a sudden, I heard loud but beautiful singing in a Broadway belt that could be clearly heard as one moved away from the din of the trading floor. I swung open the door and was greeted by the sight of this effervescent Rubenesque blonde, singing as she brushed her hair, swaying rhythmically to an imagined beat in her head. Then she began this jubilant little jazz dance. I don’t recall the song she sang, I just remember a contagious joy that radiated from her every pore.
Now, in American political folklore, it was touted long before Barack Obama’s ascension that Bill Clinton was really the first “Black President.” Well, I wouldn’t know about the hubris of that particular claim. However, I do know that my friend, Jené was the first black white woman I had ever known! All whom she encountered could clearly bear witness to the fact that she had soul. Plus she had a rhythm and blues groove that transcended any racial definitions or barriers. The day I met her, I immediately praised her voice and instead of responding with false modesty or the somewhat narcissistic self-doubt that many performers exhibit when complimented – Jené’s expression was one of complete delight! It was as if I had said, “Wow – what fun you are having!” Her gregarious nod communicated, “You bet I am and isn’t life just incredible!” The phrase “You go girl!” wasn’t in vogue during that period of time, but still, this salutation would apply to Jené’s exuberance always.
I told her that I was going to an audition for a musical the next evening. I then suggested that she should go too. Now ordinarily your average actress doesn’t encourage more competition in an always crowded field. But those usual self preservation and competitive instincts that usually run to the extreme in a performer were set aside when it came to Jené. How could one not share her talents with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning: “Look what I found under the tree!” It says in Matthew 5:13-16 “Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick, that it may shine to all that are in the house.” Jené was a veritable Fourth of July firecracker! She lit up the sky!
I realized that Jené would be my direct competition for the plum comedic role of “Miss Adelaide” in the Damon Runyon classic, GUYS AND DOLLS. Still, a force from beyond compelled me to fill her in on all the details of the upcoming audition. I remember her pumping my hand and thanking me. As she turned to go back to her job, she enthusiastically informed me, “Remember, what blesses one…blesses all!” As it turned out Jené and I were cast as the two female leads. I had considered myself a perennial character actress, it had never occurred to me that there was any other role for me in that show. Surprisingly, the director saw me as the romantic leading lady, “Sister Sarah.” And so Jené and I co-starred together! We began a friendship that was one of the most spiritually influential of my young adulthood.
I had long been a practicing Catholic, but it was Jené who guided me towards a day-in and day-out spirituality that transformed how I took on challenges in life. When I was angered at outside influences, whether is was in the micro matters of my daily life or the macro issues of the world at large, Jené’s response was an enthused, “Well we’ll have to meditate on that” or “we will pray for them, won’t we!” But she didn’t have a sanctimonious or heavy tone of one who had to brace oneself for battle. She took on challenges with the enthusiastic determination of one about to untwist the tight lid of a stubbornly stuck jar. She felt that one didn’t need to break anything, but just dig in, get a firm grip, and then start turning..and then God would do the rest. Her determined philosophy of “What blesses one, blesses all”… had a lasting power in my life, because as Jené had affected me, it lead me as a communicator to influence many others in the three decades since we first met.
Also, what set her apart in my life was that she was the only actress I knew back then who shared my political worldview. I will never forget the night of Ronald Reagan’s landslide in 1980. I came back to my mother’s home, from being an official Poll watcher. Somehow, it was Jené who had been left to man the phones at our house. As I came through the backdoor, I was surprised that it was Jené and not my mom who greeted me. Mom had apparently left for the local campaign headquarters where my brother, a triumphant local state candidate was awaiting the returns. So as I walked in the back door of our kitchen, Jené threw her arms up in the air, and started that jubilant jazz dance I had observed in the ladies room at the Mercantile Exchange. She grabbed my hand and started doing that jazzy rock and roll boogie combo, as she enthused, “Reagan is winning! Isn’t it fabulous!”
And so we had a lot in common, but unlike me (on micro or macro issues), Jené simply didn’t argue with people. When someone was contrary, she would just beam that broad smile of hers! And because she towered over most, she might just even grab someone and suddenly kiss the startled adversary on top of their head – and then she would start laughing uproariously at her own exuberance! Oh how I would have loved to have seen Jené meet the always-cynical Bill Maher (even when he “wins”, he’s bitter). I believe she could have won him over. Oh I’m sure at first, he would have been horrified … but then be completely charmed. Trust me, I witnessed her sparkling effect on others time and time again…and whereever Jene ventured instantly became a curmudgeon-free zone!
And so for years, we were involved in one another’s lives beyond theatre and our careers. Then later on when she married, I was one of her bridesmaids. And not long after that, I won a best actress award in Chicago called The Joseph Jefferson (it was Chicago’s equivalent of Broadway’s Tony Award). Even though Jené’s father had just suffered a heart attack, she called from the hospital to enthusiastically send her accolades. I have often used the term “enthused” to describe Jené. To have enthusiasm is translated as to be filled with God’s spirit. That was Jené!
However, as with many old friendships, circumstances change. In the last 25 years, as I moved around the country from Chicago to Los Angeles and then to Virginia, I had infrequent contact with Jene. And yet, every time we spoke there was the same camaraderie we had first shared as young women in our twenties, starting our life adventures. Then I saw her again at my mother’s wake shortly before 9/11 in 2001. And of course, from time to time we would talk on the phone, and finally the last time we chatted was over a year ago when I was at O’Hare airport between flights. We sent occasional greeting cards, but Jené didn’t do email…I think it was too small a way to communicate for her…or at least she didn’t have the patience for sitting at a computer. She was too busy living life to the fullest, no distracted texting or mini-tweets for Jené. Life was too big.
And yet, it was by email that her husband informed me that Jené had suddenly died some weeks ago. He announced simply that he had lost his love, his soulmate and his best friend. He apologized that he had been in a bit of a daze and so it had taken him awhile to contact all of Jené’s old friends like me. I think somehow for him her death still wasn’t quite real, and perhaps if he didn’t put it into words it might not be true. And now, even though Jené and I had not been in each other’s lives on a regular basis for a long time – I still feel a big loss. Then again, another part of me – that spiritual part that Jené certainly helped to develop – knows that she is a part of my future just as she was a part of my past. And as through the years I have incorporated Jené’s philosophy of being conscious of the blessings in every aspect of life…she will live on.
Jené exemplified the American Dream. She built her dreams on faith, giving glory to God, working hard as she lovingly shared the bounty that was her life with others. Her love of life was big and inclusive. She felt anything was possible! I am so grateful that such a merry angel walked among us – or should I say – glided to the beat of her heart, while always joyfully singing.
Finally, it is ironic that Jené succumbed to congestive heart failure. Goodness knows her spiritual heart never seemed to fail. But honestly in these frightening times, I think God simply decided He needed her on the other side to keep His spirits up! God gave the world this bright candle and she was His to take. And in the brief time she was here, Jené brightened every room she ever entered. And so as God blessed Jené with her life, she blessed all those who knew her. People were transformed by her. Just as I first noticed her at The Mercantile Exchange – throughout her life, her radiant presence greeted one and all as she made her way towards her destination. So I know that Jené still blesses even those who never personally got to experience her example. May God continue to bless Jené …as her life truly blessed us all.