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  • Writer's pictureErin Chandler

What Today Brings

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” – Anais Nin

I have been thinking a lot about Dr. Jane Gentry Vance, a resident of Versailles for over forty years and my first writing mentor. I have long noticed that Kentucky, at least Versailles, Lexington and Louisville that I know of, seems to have cornered the market on bright, educated, well-traveled women. Jane was absolutely at the top of the heap.

The poetess with a Ph.D. had a giant personal life including a marriage that produced two beautiful daughters and later in life she was blessed with a longtime companion she loved dearly, Bill Strode, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer. Her public life was a blessing to the rest of us. Jane was on the Vestry of St. John’s here in Versailles and was highly appreciated by the parishioners. She was even ordained to take communion to people who were homebound.

The Gentry family came to Kentucky with Daniel Boone and settled in Athens where she grew to appreciate the land and a simple life where everyone had a milk cow and everyone had chickens providing their eggs. Pictures in her twenties reveal her in a black turtleneck under dark hair, hands gesturing excitedly to a classroom. It is clear that this was someone taking life and turning it inside out, investigating the human condition and reveling in different ways to express it through words, Pictures of her later in life reveal the soft knowing eyes of a woman satisfied that she had accomplished that task. In person, she projected a calm, a peace that permeated the atmosphere, drawing in students and contemporaries alike.

“What a privilege,” she said, “to have earned my living thinking about stories, doing what I would have wanted to do, that is read and write, or talk about reading and writing even if there had not been, for forty years, the prospect of a paycheck at the end of every month.” Jane passed away October 2nd, 2014 at the age of 73, leaving so many of us wanting more of her friendship, love, knowledge and encouragement.

The other day I sat down with Bill Goodman for an interview about my new book and the Kentucky Book Fair where I will be joining other authors on Saturday, November 18th. As I walked through the campus on another sunny, warm October afternoon, memories flooded back to a poetry class I took with Jane in 2012. We had known each other for years already, she was like family to my Aunt Toss and Ann Hollingsworth so I grew up knowing I should know this courageous teacher and poet. Upon spending time with her myself, I immediately got the impression that she defied any hint of intolerance. There was nothing you could offer up that would ruffle her, she was absolutely void of judgment.

I soaked up every bit of insight she offered in that classroom and then each night after class we walked to our cars together. It was an honor when she agreed to read an early draft of my manuscript and took me to lunch to discuss it. Afterwards she not only encouraged me to enter Spalding’s MFA Program in creative writing but wrote a humdinger of a recommendation. That program changed my life. Jane changed my life.

On my way to the to the 9th floor of the Patterson building, with thoughts of my mentor flooding my head, I found the suite where the Kentucky Humanities Podcast was to be recorded. I sat at the desk in front of the microphone, looked down and saw a book of poems by Jane Gentry Vance. “Did you do this on purpose?” I asked Bill Goodman.

“No,” he smiled a bit confused. “The editor of this book was here just before you.”

I knew it was a sign. I knew Jane was with me. I knew she was encouraging me, understanding my struggles, and saying she understood. She was proud and I just might be lucky enough for Jane to be one of my guardian angels. Now that is a blessing.

I encourage all that didn’t know Jane or have the privilege to visit with her on that wonderful porch on Morgan Street, to go out and get A Garden in Kentucky, or Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig and discover why this Kentuckian made such an impact on so many people.

Above all I want to thank Dr. Jane Gentry Vance for showing me what a courageous woman looks like, acts like and writes like. Life is pretty darn tough sometimes and to have an example of a life lived with such dignity is a precious thing to have. There is never a pretty bow tied up at the end of a life. I hate that she suffered from cancer. It seems unfair. I can’t make heads or tails of why she had to experience that but I do know that she went through it with grace. I salute her. Now I can take with me the image of that smiling face going from experience to experience, offering an empathetic ear, warm hug or life lesson to those in her path. When I experience tough times, I can remember Jane with her head held high and her life expanding because of her extraordinary courage.

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