She looked a little out of place; this older woman attired in crimson red with a matching hat. She seemed dressed for church, not a Toastmaster’s meeting. Ironic, though, that the group met in a church every Friday evening around 6 p.m. Most Toastmasters groups meet Monday through Thursday after work. Some even meet before the work day starts, especially if it’s a company oriented-club. But Friday evenings was the only time our group could schedule, when it was formed in 2000. I joined it the following year and came up with a slogan: ‘A Different Kind of Happy Hour.’ People liked that, and it drew a wide variety of visitors.
It was just such a nondescript Friday evening in the spring of 2003, when Jolyn Robichaux arrived. None of us realized it at that moment – and I’m certain not even she knew – but Jolyn would make an indelible impact on our lives. Her personality was as bright as the outfit she wore that evening; her verbiage as graceful as the way she carried herself into the room. Her worldly experiences proved she was one of those rare individuals who take life by the throat and wring every ounce of ecstasy from it. With a vibrant smile and an infectious laugh, Jolyn had an incredible on anyone she ever met. And I am honored to have been one of them.
Jolyn passed away a year ago this month. She would have been 90 this coming May. I’d last heard from her, via email, in early 2015. I had always made it a point to mail her a birthday card; a simple gesture she knew was genuine, but – in this electronic age – she still found amazing.
“That you actually took the time to hand-write my address on it and mail it,” she once told me, “shows how compassionate you are!”
Jolyn appreciated such ordinary and inconspicuous acts; those “little things” people often overlooked or dismissed. Her own life, however, was anything but ordinary or inconspicuous. Born in Cairo, Illinois in 1928 to Margaret Love, a beautician, and Dr. Edward Chuny Howard, a dentist, Jolyn seemed to have two strikes against her from the start: she was female and Black; attributes that rendered her almost sub-human at the time. Anyone growing up during the Great Depression learned how difficult life could be. For people like Jolyn, it was almost unbearable. Still, everyone did the best they could. Jolyn’s father often bartered his dental services with neighboring farmers in exchange for food. Many of those farmers were White and surely wondered how a Black man could have possibly become a dentist. But he earned their trust and respect with his strong work ethic and concern for their dental health, at a time when dentistry often straddled the border between medieval cruelty and an unnecessary luxury. There were joyous moments as well, she always emphasized, when discussing her younger years. “You just have to look for them.” And hard work is, most often, worth the effort; paying off “one way or another.”
Jolyn (back left) in 1943 beside her sister, Charlotte Howard, with brother William and their mother, Margaret.
Jolyn graduated valedictorian from Sumner High School at the age of 16. But the happiness the Howard family felt over her academic achievements was tempered when her father fell ill with a rare blood disease. What should have been a joyous occasion was shattered when Dr. Howard died shortly thereafter at the age of 48.
Despite the tragedy, Jolyn knew she had to move forward. One curious attribute of successful, independent people is their ability to handle death – even the deaths of loved ones. As painful as it was to lose her father at such a young age, Jolyn knew the world wouldn’t stop because she was sad and began attending classes at Fisk University in Nashville. Two years later, however, Jolyn decided her mother needed help, both financially and in caring for the two youngest Howard children. Jolyn left Fisk and moved to Chicago to work full-time, while planning to take evening classes at Roosevelt University.
Classes at Roosevelt lasted only a year, as Jolyn told me, because Chicago’s “fast life” got hold of her. That included the bevy of handsome, well-dressed and well-spoken men she encountered. Both of her parents would have howled in anger, Jolyn said with a laugh, at the mere thought of her “getting frisky” with any man. Remember, this was late 1940s / early 1950s America; a post-war nation where opportunities looked endless on the personal and professional fronts – even for women and non-Whites.
Now ensconced in a more liberal and open-minded environment, Jolyn found work with the Chicago Veterans Administration and the National Labor Relations Board; as an executive secretary with two other large corporations; and even as an assistant to a renowned diagnostician. It’s difficult to imagine now, but for a Black woman to take such jobs at the time was incredibly radical; almost rebellious. Yet, like much of what she’d do throughout both her personal and professional lives, Jolyn wouldn’t let herself be assigned a certain role or position, as then-contemporary norms prescribed. She was already dictating her own place in this world – not by someone else and not even by society as a whole. Radical, indeed! But to her, it was as natural a reaction as breathing. There was just no alternative.
Amidst the many people she encountered in Chicago, Jolyn cited one particular individual as having, perhaps, the most significant impact: Mary McLeod Bethune. As Jolyn would do in the coming years, Bethune didn’t let her race or gender define her or keep her from attaining success on her own terms. Born to former slaves in South Carolina in 1875, Bethune would go on to become an acclaimed educator in the African-American community and was an especially charismatic role model for women. Although not naïve to the traumas of racism and sexism, Bethune still felt that education was a vital tool in the pursuit of equality.
Jolyn realized how important this was to her, too, and went on to earn a degree in education from Chicago Teachers College, graduating magna cum laude in 1960. When I made the decision several years ago to return to college and earn a degree in English, Jolyn expressed as much excitement as my parents. I lamented the fact that I’d waited so long to complete that one life-long ambition.
“The important thing is that you get it done,” Jolyn told me via email. “If it’s important to you, then it’s important!”
In 1950, Jolyn met Joseph Julius Robichaux at a private party in Chicago. While dancing that same evening, he startled her by asking her to get married. Perhaps even more surprising to him is that she didn’t say yes immediately. Again, it’s hard to understand now, but in mid-20th century America, women normally didn’t say no to marriage. With so few opportunities for even well-educated women – especially Black women – the roles of wife and mother were pretty much the apex of their lives. Telling him no put her, as she eloquently described it, “the naughty girl list.” But Joseph persisted, certainly knowing what an extraordinary woman had entered his world. Jolyn eventually said yes to Joseph, and the couple wed in 1952. Four years later they welcomed their first child, Sheila. In 1964, their first son, Joseph Howard, was born. By then, Jolyn had fallen – somewhat – into that traditional wife-mother role. But she still managed to do so on her own terms. Aside from completing her education, she participated in various civic activities and assisted her husband in his burgeoning political career.
Jolyn and Joseph Robichaux (center) in 1964.
In 1967, the Robichauxs entered into a new venture, when they purchased Baldwin Ice Cream Company. Baldwin had been founded as the Seven Links Ice Cream Co. in 1921 by Kit Baldwin and six of his Black coworkers at the Chicago Post Office. As a Black-owned and Black-operated enterprise, Baldwin stood out in the maze of corporate America. In 1948, Baldwin bought out his partners and renamed the company after himself.
By 1971, it seemed life couldn’t be more fulfilling or more perfect for the Robichaux family. But tragedy once again punched a hole into Jolyn’s life, when Joseph, Sr., died of leukemia. While dealing with such a heart-wrenching event, Jolyn realized she had three choices (albeit difficult ones): continue the family’s interest in Baldwin, find work teaching, or become a full-time mother. She chose to stay with Baldwin. The company was in receivership by 1971, due in part, to a staid routine that no longer yielded a profit in a rapidly-changing economy and culture.
That same year Chicago Mayor Richard Daley appointed Jolyn to replace her deceased husband on the Jury Commissioners Board of Cook County. The position – which she held until 1979 – provided a steady income. In 1975 she earned a certificate in ice cream technology from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). Jolyn then re-made Baldwin into her own. She developed business relationships with other ice cream executives in the Chicago area and increase sales in Baldwin’s 17 chain stores.
Baldwin’s phenomenal success prompted President Ronald Reagan to name Jolyn as USA Minority Business Woman of the Year for 1985. She received the award personally from Vice-President George W. Bush.
In 1992, Jolyn sold her ice cream business and made an unexpected move: 4,130 miles (6,646 km) to Paris, France. Still bristling with an entrepreneurial spirit, Jolyn created a one-woman business that brought American gospel singers to Paris for performances at the American Cathedral in Paris.
Shortly thereafter, Jolyn was back in the U.S., settling in Dallas to be closer to family. But retirement appeared to be an alien concept to her. In 1997 she participated in the Heart Disease Research Project at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. From 1999 to 2001 she served on the Dallas Opera’s Board of Directors. She was a docent at Southern Methodist University’s prestigious Meadows Museum of Art; served as a mentor at Dallas Life Foundation, an organization that helps homeless people get off and stay off the streets; and even worked as a substitute teacher in the Dallas Independent School District.
I knew she loved opera and not just because she had lived in Paris. We both shared that passion. But not until after her death did I learn she did so much for her community and many of the people who occupied it. It doesn’t surprise me. Jolyn wasn’t a braggart. Unlike some sports and entertainment celebrities and more than a few politicians, Jolyn did what she liked to do and helped whenever she could.
Jolyn with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) in 1974.
She was more than just a friend; she was a trustworthy mentor to me personally. I could relate the various trials tribulations of dealing with my parents’ declining health, not really thinking that Jolyn was actually a few years older than either of them. She was truly inspirational; choosing to celebrate other people’s accomplishments and aspirations. After presenting one of my most passionate speeches, “A Matter of Respect,” to Toastmasters one evening, she almost jumped out of her chair to give me a hug. “I saw the fire in your eyes and could hear it in your soul!” she proclaimed after the meeting.
She read several of my short stories and essays on this blog and predicted, “You will get published!”
If I counted my own personal achievements, they’d certainly fall short of even just half of what Jolyn did with her life. Like me, she kept a regular journal; understanding how truly therapeutic it could be. They were her essentially her autobiography – as are most journals – but told me via email, “They will not be published.” That may have been a wish she asked of her family, but I honestly hope they defy her on that one. If there’s anyone whose life story deserves (must be) told, it is that of Jolyn Robichaux.
About 5 years ago Jolyn invited me to join her at a dance class not far from where I live. I told her I would, but a family emergency arose at the last minute. She expressed greater concern for my welfare than for my absence at the class. And I thought later, ‘That’s just like her; already in her mid-80s and learning something new.’
That described Jolyn perfectly – dancing to the very end.
“When I Die”
“When I die, when I finish living this life, when all my stakes and claims in this world are rendered null and void, I want to leave like the final swirl of smoke from a smoldering ember, rising as a smile into nothing.”
– Jolyn Robichaux, 2005
Jolyn’s family has asked that donations be made in her name to the Vivian G. Harsh Society, which maintains the largest collection of African-American history and literature in the Midwest.
Vivian G. Harsh Society
c/o Harold Washington Library
400 S. State St., 5th Floor
Chicago, IL 60605