In Memoriam

Clara Willis

In January 2000, KBS received a very generous donation in memory of Clara Willis from Carrie Jelsma. Following is Carrie's letter:

Dear Kentuckiana Blues Society,

I'd like to offer this charitable donation to your organization to honor the memory of a lifelong friend of my family--Clara Willis. Clara and my family met when she began helping my mother raise us kids, long before I was even born. I remember Clara as a member of our family, an incredibly loyal, dedicated one. Clara was widowed at a fairly young age and she refused to marry her boyfriend because one of his requests was that she could no longer work with our family if they married. She refused to give us up and we loved her just as much. In fact, my mother always told Clara that if Clara died first my mom would stuff her and prop her up at the kitchen table so they could continue their day long diatribes about the family, the world, and one of Clara's favorite topics--the blues. Clara often regaled us with stories about how her and her late husband danced all night long to the blues and she'd always wear her favorite yellow dress. So, upon realizing we would violate too many health codes, among other things, if we stuffed Clara and propped her up at the kitchen table, I decided to make this donation to you instead to honor her memory and her great love for the blues. Thank you for accepting this gift.

Carrie Jelsma

We requested some additional information about Clara from Carrie and following is an excerpt from Carrie's e-mail:

... Clara was from Louisville, and died a couple of years ago when she was 74. She was married three times, and, after her third husband died, she was engaged, but never remarried. I remember her frequently talking about her third husband, Elekio, who she loved to the day she died. He died of a heart attack when I was too little to remember. Elekio and Clara would go out to dance and listen to the blues three to four nights a week. My mother, Elene Jelsma, said she remembers one of Clara's favorite places was Joe's Palm Room, and Clara always had to wear yellow when she went out dancing and listening to music.

The blues was also what brought my husband, Doug, closer to Clara. I am not nearly the blues aficionado that Clara was, and that my husband is. I ended up moving to Washington D.C. after college, and brought my then-boyfriend-now-husband Doug home to meet my family (which included Clara in all of our minds) a few years ago. Doug and Clara came from two different worlds--worlds created by simply what family they were born into, race, income level, access to education, among the myriad of other factors that affect people's lives. However, both had total access to and love for the world of blues--a world that wasn't affected by all those other factors that create differences in people's lives.

Clara grew up in Louisville, and had to struggle to create a good life for herself that Doug and I didn't have to work so hard at (i.e. like not having to worry about money while growing up, where we would live, having access to good education, not having to hold down separate jobs all through high school, having the option to go to college.) When Doug and Clara met, they talked for long periods of time about all the different genres of blues and how the blues evolved across the nation, looked over Clara's blues collection album by album, and exchanged recordings of their favorite artists. I think Doug and Clara were able to connect on a deeper level personally through their mutual love of the world of blues, than they would have otherwise.

Thanks again for everything,
Carrie Jelsma

No, Carrie -- Thank YOU not only for honoring Clara, but for helping to "Keep on Keepin' the Blues Alive"! And rest assured that we will find a very appropriate purpose for honoring Clara's memory.

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First Published: 01 Jan 1997 * Last Revised: 31 Jul 2018

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