Delivered by Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC, May 5, 2011
Memorial Services are never easy to conduct or to attend. We use them as a way to say goodbye and to remember a beloved friend or family member. Everyone feels a sense of loss and emptiness in their lives – a void once occupied by a vibrant, happy and significant person. In many respects, we tend to focus on the loss instead of on the gain. We see death in terms of its finality and as a reminder that we too will one day take its journey.
For me, however, it does not matter the faith or spirituality we practice – or don’t’ – to see death as an occasion to celebrate a beautiful and wonderful life. And I believe that should precisely be the case with Jean May Hodil. Gracing this earth with her presence for over 84 years, Jean was a gift, a joyful presence to friends and family, and a vital contributor to the well-being of her community and world. Because of Jean, this city and each of our lives are richer and better off. Yes, she has passed into an eternity of peace and she will be deeply missed. But we also have ample reason to celebrate, laugh, sing and deeply appreciate her life, her presence with us and the large and small legacies she created. I cannot begin to imagine the sense of loss her family, multiple associates and close friend Arlene now feel. Nevertheless, as someone who counts it an honor and a privilege to have known her, I stand here today in a celebratory frame of mind. Jean lived a long life. She impacted so many. She loved family and friends well. She added her intelligence and her diligence to improve life for others. Hers was a life wondrously led, on her terms, and for that we can all be very happy.
Born just outside of Pittsburgh in 1926, Jean experienced at an early age the kind of loss we all feel today. Her mother died when she was only eight and her father passed when she was just a young woman of twenty. But she shared her long life with two siblings – Helen who was born when Jean was beginning college, and Earl, eight years her junior. Attending Grove City College at a time in our history when many women still did not, or could not, aspire to such education, Jean early on established herself as a smart and sophisticated woman. Helen’s earliest memory of Jean is of her wearing one of those stylish, large brimmed hats that all of the chic and trendy women wore in the thirties and forties. She was a confident, interesting, fun and educated woman who, as Helen says, always seemed really “cool”. Jean did not patronize her younger sister and instead treated her like an adult. For Helen, it was always exciting to see Jean and she remained the role model of her life.
As a young woman, Jean was going places. A music major and vocalist in college, Jean moved from being a vocal teacher to work as a musical instruction supervisor to beginning her lifelong career with the YWCA as a youth director in Beaumont, Texas. And from there, she climbed the ladder of success – moving to Ohio where she served, successively, as the YWCA Executive Director in Springfield, Youngstown, Columbus and Cincinnati. During her years in Columbus, she earned her master’s degree in social work at Ohio State. Once again, Jean was a cultural trendsetter through her work in the Executive suite at a major organization. The YWCA has historically empowered women like Jean to assume positions of influence and impact. Its history tells the story of social progress in the twentieth century and Jean was an integral part of the YWCA as it advocated for immigrants, factory workers, child labor laws, racial equality, and more recently, for the rights of battered and abused women and children. Across the state of Ohio, Jean’s legacy of leadership and work for the marginalized is woven into the lives of countless women. That is one big reason to joyfully celebrate her life.
It was in Jean’s 1978 application to be the Executive Director at the Cincinnati YWCA that she met Arlene who was on the search committee for that position. And thus began a 33 year beautiful friendship. Jean had a wry sense of humor which Arlene remembers. An example of which was when Jean playfully teased Arlene – who was serving mostly as an unpaid volunteer within the local YWCA – by sending her a letter indicating that the organization could only afford to give Arlene a small raise that year but, if she worked really hard and well in the coming year, she could expect an even smaller raise the next! As someone who faced Jean in salary negotiations for my position as Pastor, I knew her to be a kind, caring and very serious business woman – who also had a wry and funny sense of humor!
In the late 70’s and early 80’s Jean skillfully transformed the YWCA to meet a new mission and purpose. No longer a place where young, single and proper young ladies found independent and safe living accommodations – since that was no longer in demand – the local YWCA, under Jean’s leadership, became a place of protection and safe shelter for battered women and their children. Jean reordered the organization’s finances by transferring ownership of their residential facility – thus reducing maintenance costs – and she was instrumental in opening a Clermont County branch shelter of the Y for abused women.
Partial retirement came in 1988 when Jean and Arlene, no longer at the YWCA, joined forces to become entrepreneurs by opening a pet sitting service appropriately called “Critter Care.” As successful businesswomen they even hired staff and thus met another longtime friend, Linda Tong. Jean and Arlene could never be far away from social outreach and they donated the services of their business to assist AIDS patients who could no longer care for their pets. Jean’s love for animals – and particularly cats – spanned her lifetime. Her two cats, Charley Brown and Lilly, attest to her love for them with the sense of loss they now very clearly feel. Jean was also a longtime volunteer at the Cincinnati Zoo and a regular docent with the Taft Museum of Art.
And this small, diminutive, sophisticated woman was passionate about the Opera; she thrilled to her favorite opera, “Rosenkavalier”; she attended faithfully every Opera season, along with the Cincinnati symphony and the May Festival. She included in her love for music many trips to see the Chicago Opera. She was a true aficionado of great classical music. But Jean was also, surprisingly, an ardent Cincinnati Reds baseball fan! She’d never attended a game in her early years and knew very little about the sport but, after attending one game many years ago at the invitation of Arlene and other friends, Jean became hooked. She followed the Reds, attended numerous games and was looking forward to this summer when she hoped to attend again. Famously, Arlene and friends often laughed and teased Jean about her early unfamiliarity with baseball and one particularly amusing incident. At one of the first Reds games Jean attended, and perhaps reflecting her concern for animals, Jean asked fans seated near her about the bulls in the pen!
It is nearly impossible to reflect a life like Jean’s in the few minutes we have today. Suffice it to say that Jean, in a gentle but determined manner, was passionate about life. But the sum of any life is not measured by deeds we have done – good or bad. If we are each here to help build heaven on earth, then it is our impact on the lives of fellow people and fellow creatures that is the measure of our brief passage across this mortal coil. In that regard, Jean was a bright comet across each of our universes. And she shone most brightly in the lives of those who knew her best.
To her family, Jean was and still is: sister, Aunt, sister-in-law. The legacy of her love for them is right here today – from Cleveland, Maryland and Florida – Helen, Tom, Alison, Whitney, Molly, Earl, Beth, David and Earl Jr. – their presence today testifies to Jean’s loving impact on their lives. She was, as her sister Helen explains, really close to each of her three nieces and two nephews. She followed their lives, their growing up and their becoming contributing members of society and parents in their own right. Helen tells me her daughters became Jean’s daughters – their grand moments in life giving Jean happiness and pride. As we will all see from pictures in a short while, Jean stood and posed proudly between the very tall Earl Jr. and David. She loved them both with all that she could pack into her petite frame.
For Tom and Beth, Jean’s brother and sister-in-law, she was like another sister. Arlene commented to me how poignant it was for her to see the depth of sorrow and anguish Tom felt during Jean’s last days – he too was faithfully by her side, offering prayers, hope, comfort and love. And for Helen and Earl, Jean was truly their BIG sister. Almost a second mother to them in their early years, Jean later became their equal – their great and glorious sister to whom they looked with pride. The many weeks Helen has spent in Cincinnati over the past few years – helping Jean recover from various surgeries and, just recently, sitting by her side and assisting in medical decisions for over three weeks – testify to a sibling love that crosses sixty years. Helen and Earl, we should all be so fortunate to have you as a sister and brother. Most assuredly, we should all be as lucky as BOTH of you are, to have Jean for a sister.
To Jean’s friends, she was a great and caring and fun-loving person. To the many who knew her at the Gathering, we cannot begin to think of our congregation without her. Indeed, she was a founding member and her choice to support Steve Van Kuiken, in his time of trial, showed her courage and her commitment to justice and equality. She served the church faithfully over these last eight years – working with our finance team in countless ways that help a small church remain stable and vibrant. I was honored to serve her as Pastor for over a year and it will not be the same to look out on Sunday mornings and not see her.
After my first several messages as a new Pastor, Jean knowingly smiled at me and said, “Doug, that was ok. You’re getting there.” Finally, after a few months, she told me at the end of one message that I had done a good job. From Jean, such praise was hard earned but it still means a lot. A few months ago, as I said earlier, I sat across from Jean as we discussed my salary for this year. She was a calming presence. She wanted to give me a nice raise but she also knew her duty, from years as a seasoned Director of the YWCA, that she had to look out for the interests of the Gathering. In the end, we concluded our discussion mutually happy and I, with a deeper appreciation of her strong but gentle approach.
For one friend in particular, Linda Tong, Jean was like a sister and wise mentor. For young Vivian Tong, Jean was a grandmother and inspiring force. Jean knew young Vivian from her first moments on American soil – greeting her and holding this gift of a child in her arms – so proud and so happy for Linda. To my partner, Ed, who serves as Vivian’s youth Pastor, on the day before Jean died Vivian could not keep from .sharing a sense of loss coming at her young age. I know for both of you – Linda and Vivian – Jean will never be forgotten.
How do I begin to capture the meaning and love and friendship that Jean and Arlene shared for 33 years? It is impossible. From their collaboration at the Y, to their business partnership with Critter Care, to shared hours at the Cincinnati Zoo, to Opera arias mutually appreciated, to common Sundays at the Gathering, to knowing moments each morning commenting on the day’s newspaper, to laughter and joy each evening at 5 o’clock sharp as they sipped a martini together, to the final three weeks of Jean’s life as Arlene watched, waited, and prayed next to her best friend – these are the precious times of a deep and close relationship.
Arlene, my dear, we cannot know or fully appreciate how much you must miss Jean. To many of us, she was a friend. To you, she was the BEST of friends – one with whom you shared common likes and with whom you shared many remarkable and beautiful life moments. We celebrate your friendship and the joy it brought both of you. When any of us, in the future, want to be around Jean, we will meet her in you – in ways that only the best of friends change our lives for the good. You are loved by so many who also love Jean and we will honor her life and her legacies by continuing to support you.
As I said at the beginning of this homily, we are here to celebrate Jean’s life. Yes, we each feel the sorrow and pain of her loss. But, I hope we do not focus here or in the days ahead on how much we lost with her death but in how much we gained with her life. Each of us hope to depart this earth having left behind changed lives. Few of us may know – perhaps even Jean did not know – the many lives of young YWCA women she helped save and change for the better. How many of our fellow creatures – from giraffes at the zoo to our cats and dogs – have been touched by Jean’s caring hands? How many unknown ways do any us reflect her influence, her counsel, her strength, her wisdom, her sense of fairness, equality and justice? Most importantly, how many of us were touched by her affection, her pride in us, her inspiring example to lead a life of integrity and grace?
It does not serve the memory of anyone to cloak them in sainthood and absolute perfection. Jean was human like any of us. But she lived life well. She lived it with purpose. She lived it with generosity in time, love and resources. Jean may have been small in stature but she looms large in how she influenced each of us and the world at large. Let us each joyfully remember and celebrate the many ways she touched our lives for the better and let us give thanks that we knew her and that we counted her as a loving friend, sister, aunt, confidante, and co-worker. Jean, we will never forget you. We know for a fact you are still here – still counseling young women, still laughing with Arlene, still spending unforgettable moments with your family. Thank you, dear Jean, for all the many ways you made us – and still make us – better people.
Photo album of Jean’s life: please click here.