During the past few days as I was thinking about these words to honor Jean Heard, a still, small voice in the back of my mind kept repeating something the fifth chancellor of Vanderbilt University, Alexander Heard, called “Jean Heard’s Law.” It goes as follows: “A speech should be two-thirds as long as it was.” That’s a good law, and I will try to remain true to its spirit.
During her nearly five decades in Nashville, Jean played many roles, and in all of them she made our community a better place to live. As the first lady of Vanderbilt, she presided as hostess—not merely hostess, but as a true partner of the chancellor—at hundreds of university functions, contributing to the life and well-being of the university at a particularly difficult time in its history. But she was also an activist who helped transform the university—as an avid supporter of Vanderbilt’s main library; indeed, as the founder and leader of Friends of the Vanderbilt University Library; as president of the Vanderbilt Aid Society; and as a primary agent in the merger of the Blair School of Music with Vanderbilt University in 1981.
But there was more, much more, to Jean’s activism. Here are some of the efforts for which she either led or served in the 1960s and ’70s: the Citizens’ Committee for a Comprehensive Survey of Social Welfare in Metropolitan Nashville; the group Reading Is Fundamental; the Committee to Study Problems of Unmarried Parents; and the Emergency School Assistance Program. Besides these, she was a member of the Nashville Symphony Guild, the Nashville Symphony Board of Directors, the Ladies Hermitage Association, Polk Memorial Association, the Pi Beta Phi Alumni Association, and the Tennessee Performing Arts Foundation. And her impact was not merely local: In 1977, at the request of First Lady Rosalyn Carter, she testified before the President’s Commission on Mental Health about adolescent pregnancy.
And with all of these, I have not even mentioned Jean’s career as a professional musician and concert violinist. She was a graduate of the Juilliard School, and she performed with the symphonies of the University of Alabama, the University of North Carolina and, later, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, and she was an active studio musician in Nashville. In the 1960s and ’70s, these many musical performances and civic causes were not typical activities for the wife of a chancellor of a Southern university. They were, and still are, extraordinary by any standard. What motivated her?
“She was passionate about music, about her family, about politics and about education. Her behind-the-scenes influence was far-reaching and her sense of humor something that will always bring a smile to my face. … She cared deeply about those around her.”
Passion, of course. Jean’s daughter, Connie, said it best: “She was passionate about music, about her family, about politics and about education. Her behind-the-scenes influence was far-reaching and her sense of humor something that will always bring a smile to my face. … She cared deeply about those around her.”
We all knew of Jean’s passion, and of her energy. And there was also zest—a word we don’t hear much anymore. Jean brought zest to everything she did. And she was fierce—not in a mean way, but in advocating and defending those things she believed in.
Jean Heard was, after all, a vivid presence, larger than life. Being with her, whether for an evening or merely a brief encounter after a concert, was an Event. You looked forward to seeing Jean because you never quite knew what was going to happen. But you knew it would be interesting and lively and spirited and joyous, and it always was. Being with her was great fun, partly because she might say things the rest of us were thinking and wanted to say but didn’t, and she often made us feel that it was OK to think and say those things. Or maybe not. At least she made us glad that somebody was saying them.
Jean’s passion—her zest and her fierceness—all derived from her deep appreciation for life’s infinite possibilities, from her commitment to helping improve other people’s lives, and her profound enjoyment of life’s wonderful absurdities.
These qualities all came together in a marvelously focused and purposeful way—in the social causes Jean embraced and helped lead, and even in her social life. In 2008, Jean lived briefly at Belmont Village, the assisted-living facility where my mother also lived. When I went there to visit my mother, I would see Jean in the hallway, usually at a distance, with a group of other residents. Even at a distance, there was no doubt who was in charge of the group. Jean brought to the others a forceful sense of organization and purpose that they weren’t accustomed to.
She brought that passion and energy and zest to all of us, and to our community, in her music, and in the causes she embraced. Look at what she did for this university and this city, and consider her wonderfully talented and accomplished family that gave her such joy. This is an amazing legacy. This is what we remember, and what we treasure about Jean. She gave us a splendid example to follow.
Mark Wait, dean of the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt, shared these remarks during a Jan. 8, 2011, memorial service at Benton Chapel for Jean Heard, who died Jan. 2. Click here for her obituary.