A Tribute to Jane V. Clark

by Dina Young

On March 22, 2007 CHARIS lost founding member Jane V. Clark who died after a brave battle with leukemia. Throughout the history of the chorus Jane was unwavering in her support of our every endeavor. Her life is inseparably intertwined with the life of CHARIS.

Jane V. Clark

Jane’s connection to CHARIS actually predates the birth of the chorus. In June 1992 Jane approached James Nacy, then director of the Gateway Men’s Chorus, and asked what he thought about starting a new women’s chorus in St. Louis. He gave Jane the names of Cindy Sohn and Juliet Jackson who had earlier expressed a similar interest. The three women met and began planning and organizing a new chorus. The first meeting took place at Centenary United Methodist Church, where Jane was the Minister of Program. Jane was chosen to be a board member of the new group, and Centenary became the new chorus’ home for the first six years of its existence.

Twice Jane served as CHARIS president and led the chorus through some difficult transitions. When facing situations as daunting as finding a new director, Jane steadfastly prevailed, often by planning a course of action and responding to those who doubted our ability to accomplish the goal with the simple, direct statement, “well, we’ll just do it!” with a look and tone of voice that conveyed that the possibility of failure had never, and would never, occur to Jane. That spirit carried the chorus through numerous challenges over the years.

Jane is probably best known for her classy, elegant and often dramatic performance style. Her background in theater and opera shined through when Jane took the stage. Many of us in CHARIS believe that the feather boa is an accessory invented specifically for Jane Clark. More correctly, for Jane the boa was not actually an accessory, rather a wardrobe staple. Jane quite simply had the perfect color and style of boa for every occasion, and she was not afraid to use it!

St. Louis has many choruses. However, none of them share the mission of CHARIS or the opportunity for community involvement. Because CHARIS addresses issues of concern to women in general and lesbians in particular, we offer a unique view of both everyday issues and global concerns. Our concerts offer a chance for CHARIS to challenge ideas or stereotypes that people might have about women or lesbians, age, race, or any other “difference.” Our concerts also offer a special opportunity for our audience members to see and hear their own ideas and feelings expressed by our chorus. We take pride in the fact that many people have told us that they left with a different, more positive view of the gay and lesbian community after attending one of our performances.

None of us who sang with Jane will ever forget the passion she put into the music she performed in her lovely soprano voice. Jane, a consummate performer, had a particular fondness for torch songs, especially the classics of Gershwin and Cole Porter. When it came to singing solos, Jane was off in her own musical heaven, having left the rest of us behind on stage. Several chorus members tell of the frightening experience of trying to share the microphone when singing a solo part or duet with Jane. (One singer resorted to pushing her out of the way, which ultimately proved both unsuccessful and embarrassing.) Over time we all learned that it was nothing personal. When she sang, Jane was “in the zone” and had no idea other people even existed. In short, we concluded, when singing with Jane it’s best to have your own microphone.

There was much more to Jane than her abilities as an entertainer or the leader of the chorus. Jane’s convictions on social justice ran very deep. A few years ago Jane, along with two dozen like-minded women, posed nude in the shape of a peace sign for the cover of the Riverfront Times, to bring attention to an upcoming anti-war rally. This act earned Jane the nickname “Ms. Two O’clock” for her placement in the circular figure. While this action was very public, Jane wasn’t one to blow her own horn about her activism and so her work on the boards of such organizations as the Food Crisis Network, the Missouri Coalition of Alternatives to Imprisonment, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice was largely unknown to those of us in CHARIS.

It’s both ironic and inspiring that a straight woman would help found, lead, perform in, and support a lesbian chorus, yet that is precisely what Jane did. Jane wasn’t the least bit shy about “walking the walk.” Not only did she continually risk the censure of the Church for her role in CHARIS, she also risked being defrocked by performing union ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples. Over the years Jane married three CHARIS couples at a time when the Church strictly forbade its ministers from doing so. Knowing the risk she took yet acting on her beliefs regardless raised Jane from “ally” and “supporter” to the status of mentor and even hero for some of us in the chorus.

CHARIS has been extremely fortunate to have had Jane V. Clark as a founder, advocate, leader, singer, and supporter since the chorus began. We will miss her greatly. Jane set the standards quite high for those who come after her. But she also showed us how to succeed. Now it’s our turn to show what we learned from her.