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JOYFUL SOUL

By Cassie Livingston
In Bayou Icon
Jun 5th, 2020
0 Comments
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ARTICLE BY GEORGIANN POTTS | PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK

The first word people think of when they meet T.J. Stevenson is “joy”. Hers is a joyful soul, a loving soul, and a benevolent soul. Throughout life, she has experienced it all – sorrow, sadness, anger, love, and — more than anything — joy. As she said recently, “Life owes me nothing. I wake up every morning praising God and looking forward to the day that He is giving me. When I was growing up, the Ouachita River bridge was the longest bridge I had ever seen. Thanks to God, now I have seen much of this world. I have everything I need. That’s why I give as much as I can, as often as I can, to those who don’t have enough.” Because of her unwavering optimism about life and her lifetime of unselfish giving, T.J. Stevenson is our June BayouIcon.

Thelma Jacquelyne Stevenson (known as “T.J.” after her father) was the only child born to Thomas J. Stevenson and Lois Brooks-Tyler. Both of her parents were well-educated and enjoyed careers as teachers. Her father went to Southern University and taught in Louisiana; her mother graduated from Gilbert Academy in New Orleans; Wiley College in Marshall, Texas; and did graduate work at the University of Arkansas.

EARLY YEARS
While a child, T.J. lived with her maternal grandparents, Foster and Mattie Brooks Sr., through her elementary and junior high years until she moved to Arkansas for high school with her mother. She is an only child on her mother’s side, but T.J. says she is a member of a “tribe” on her dad’s side.


T.J.’s mother was the eldest of 10 children. When T.J. was born in her maternal grandparents’ home on Breard Street in Monroe, one of her uncles (quite a young boy at the time) was so excited to meet the new baby that he brought the infant some pecan candy and put it in her mouth. His gift, according to T.J. “. . . nearly killed me, but has been a favorite family story my entire life!”


One of T.J.’s favorite early memories is taking the bus with her maternal grandmother and traveling to Gary, Indiana, or Seattle, Washington, to visit family for a month. Her Uncle Foster who lived in Gary would come every fall to Monroe for a visit. T.J. remembers his coming to J.S. Clark Elementary to get her and carry her on his shoulders back to the house. This was an annual tradition she looked forward to. Her Uncle Lawrence from Seattle would come in the spring and his tradition was to go to Oak Ridge together to clean the family cemetery. They would pack a lunch and spend time there after cleaning, sharing stories about their ancestors and their family values. “These were memorable times when my uncles came because we were family together for a little while again,” T.J. recalls.

HELPING OTHERS IS A FAMILY TRADITION
When T.J. was a child, her home was known as “the house on the side of the road” by many. Here, she says, everyone knew they could come for a meal, a blessing, or just a listening ear. As a result, the young girl saw in actual practice acts of charity toward others taught in the Bible. It was no surprise then, when she began practicing those acts herself.


When T.J. was in second grade at J.S. Clark, she noticed that a classmate didn’t have a sweater on an especially cold day. T.J. happened to be wearing a new sweater, so she gave it to her classmate. When she came home without a sweater that afternoon, her grandmother said, “If your heart wasn’t connected to your body you would give that away, too.” Her grandmother saw in the child the beginnings of the giving woman that child would become.


During her elementary school years and in junior high at Carroll, T.J. was active in both Brownie Scouts and Girls Scouts. She also took dancing lessons that she dearly loved. At Holly Grove High School in Holly Grove, Arkansas, she excelled – except in one area. Her Aunt Emma was the choir director, so T.J. decided to take choir as a class. Soon after joining the group, her aunt pulled her aside and advised her to just stand there and “lip sync.” “Aunt Emma had discovered that I couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow!” says T.J. with a laugh.


Also at Holly Grove High T.J. was a cheerleader – a role that she embraces even today. She describes herself as a “cheerleader for life for all children” and she is. Ever eager to show her support for the students, she was known around Monroe for her “special” cheer at St. Fredericks and Neville games. She would spray paint her hands and face in the school colors and cheer. With a whistle, bells, flags, pompoms and a megaphone, off she would go.


At the end of each game, win or lose, she would do a somersault on the field, ending with her arms in the air signaling “Touchdown!” For years after, when she would walk through a store she would be greeted with “There’s our cheerleader!” from fans who had enjoyed her exuberance over the years. “To me, there are no winners and losers,” T.J. explains. “I don’t care the score – when the game is over, both sides have done their best and so everyone is a winner!”


T.J. remained close to her maternal grandparents throughout their lives. They set a wonderful example for her of truly caring for others, whether related or not. They were married for nearly 50 years (he was buried on what would have been their 50th anniversary) and lived their entire lives in the same neighborhood even building two homes there. T.J. was the self-described “gypsy of the family” – living in many cities and traveling the world. “My dad always wrote my address in pencil,” T.J. says with a chuckle.

LIFE AS A YOUNG ADULT
All of those dance lessons paid off in an unexpected way when T.J. was in college. She was attending the University of Arkansas – Pine Bluff majoring in social science with a minor in education. One day she was walking across campus when the band director stopped her and told her he wanted her as majorette. She was a member of the marching band, but had never twirled anything more than a hula-hoop. Still, as with every challenge life presented, T.J. quickly learned the necessary twirling skill to go along with her dance moves and became majorette for the band.


T.J. did graduate work at Jackson State University in guidance and counseling. These courses were to help her in the future as she became a mentor to so many troubled souls in need of direction.


When asked what her earliest career dreams were, T.J. is quick to respond with two very different aspirations. “I wanted to work for Diana Ross or Queen Elizabeth,” T.J. says with a laugh. “Ms. Ross was the most beautiful spirit in my day and I thought she would be wonderful to be around. The Queen was, well, the queen so I wanted to be around her, too, although I was never sure what my position would be there.”


Later on T.J. considered becoming an anesthesiologist for a time until she learned that putting people to sleep was only half the job. When she found out that she would have to wake them up, too, she abandoned the idea and went with her family’s tradition of education.


T.J.’s earliest “real” job came when she was 8 years old. She babysat 3 boys for $10 per week for a lady who was renting from T.J.’s grandmother. “I learned then that you should spend some and save a lot,” she remembers. “That lesson has served me well. In that day, $10 was a huge amount.”

LIVING LIFE TO THE FULLEST
T.J.’s first job in what she calls “the real world” was as an academic instructor at the Breckinridge Job Corp Center in Morganfield, KY. From there her career path was as varied and interesting as is T.J. herself. She has worked at various times as a senior flight attendant at Eastern Airlines (Miami, Atlanta, and New York City), a funeral director (Louisiana and Arkansas), a mixologist (Atlanta), a cosmetologist (Memphis and Little Rock), a radio personality (Monroe), and a restaurant owner (Monroe). Today she stays mostly in Monroe and divides her time among advocating for children and her community, operating a cleaning service, running LOLA’s, and serving as the unofficial Mayor of Adams Street (where she has lived for the past 18 years in one of the two family homes there). She also takes special joy from her daughter, Scheherazade Hyacinth Brooks-Blackman, and her granddaughter Kelsey Paige Prudhomme and grandson Keveous Jovan Prudhomme who live in Lake Charles, Louisiana.


One of the hallmarks of T.J.’s personality is her willingness to embrace life to the fullest. Because of that, combined with her considerable talent in dealing with people, she has experienced rare opportunities to meet some amazing folks including the late music superstar Michael Jackson, and international civil rights leaders, the late Nelson and Winnie Mandela.


When she was flying for Eastern Airlines, she discovered that Michael Jackson was on her flight. She was flying the LaGuardia to Orlando route and spotted Jackson in the corridor. She screamed and his bodyguard rushed Jackson into the men’s room. T.J. rushed right in after them. The bodyguard asked her, “Ma’am, do you mind?” to which she replied, “Where is he going?” The bodyguard replied, “Miami”. T.J. thought, “Oh, my God! Show time! My flight!”


T.J. describes that flight as a non-stop party from NYC to Orlando. When she approached Jackson’s seat to remove his dinner tray, she noticed that he was drawing on the linen napkins. She tapped his hand and told him not to write on her linen. When the flight was over, Jackson gave her the linen napkins on which he had drawn three caricatures and signed his autograph. Today that treasure resides in her safety deposit box at the bank, a lovely memory of a chance encounter with one of the truly greats.


Her encounter with the Mandela’s was longer. In 1990 when they came to Atlanta as part of an 8-city nationwide tour honoring them and the civil rights movement, the Mandela’s relied on local services to take care of their transportation while in the city. T.J. was working at the time as a limousine driver for Gregory & Paschal Mix Limo Service and was assigned to be Mrs. Mandela’s driver. When asked what her impression of the Mandela’s was, T.J. said that she was with Mrs. Mandela much more often than with Mr. Mandela so she didn’t have much time to develop a personal impression of him. Of Mrs. Mandela, however, T.J. says that she remembers well how peaceful and humble she was. “Mrs. Mandela was very caring and considerate of her staff and those of us working with her,” T.J. says. “She was just a great diplomat.”

MAKING A HOME
There comes a time in one’s life when the call to come home becomes too strong to be ignored. For T.J., it happened when she stopped in Monroe in 2002 for a quick family visit before going on to North Carolina where she had a job waiting. Her brother asked her to stay and keep his son until he and his wife got off work each day. T.J.’s life had come full circle. She unpacked, moved into the home her mother had built long ago for T.J.’s grandmother, and set down permanent roots.


Many are unaware that T.J.’s father was not only an educator, but also the first Black DJ in the south. “Dr. Jive” had a distinctive voice (which T.J. shares) that made him very successful as a disc jockey. After moving back to Monroe, T.J. took her own turn at working in radio, hosting a weekly show called “The Deacon’s Daughter With Words of Wisdom” for TALK 540 KMLB.


T.J. also found time to appear as an extra in 3 movies (“Blond Ambition” with Jessica Simpson in 2007, “Cleaner” with Samuel L. Jackson in 2007, and “Year One” with Jack Black in 2009). For “Cleaner” T. J. played a bag lady. To dress for the part, she went door-to-door among her neighbors and borrowed a single item of clothing from each. She put all of them on together as her costume for her role. This way, her Adams Street neighbors shared her experience.

GIVING BACK
Faith was always a mainstay in T.J.’s home. Her great-grandfather Maryland Brooks supported the church financially and was a board member even before he officially became a member of the St. James United Methodist Church. T.J. took lay classes and became a lay leader in that same church, and later served for a time as Lay Servant Minister there. The lesson of being a part of the solution was ingrained in her.


A stroke in 2004 hit T.J. hard, physically and emotionally. When she was released from the hospital, old friends Jerdan and Gail Miles canceled a vacation and came to stay with her for a week. Years later, when her mother transitioned, T.J. called the Miles and again they came, taking care of everything for her family during this difficult time. They helped reinforce for T.J. the importance of “being there” for your friends.


Later, she was able to return their kindness when the Miles suffered the tragic loss of their son, Devin. She rode Amtrak to get to Philadelphia where she located the funeral home, and waited at the head of the casket for the Miles to come in for visitation. They had no idea she was coming and were deeply moved.


T.J. felt strongly the need to give back to her community when she moved back to Monroe. When she was in high school, her mother was the director of the ESEA Title 1 food program. T.J. watched her plan meals, make shopping lists, and prepare meals. Back in Monroe, she began putting those skills to work to feed her people. “I am a 4th generation woman working to feed and bless others,” T. J. says. “My great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and now me – all of us have been givers and sharers.”


Eventually, T. J. opened L.O.L.A (“Living Our Lives Abundantly”) serving Fresh Fruit Blasts and the “Best Chicken Salad This Side of Glory.” Today it is not unusual for T.J. to get orders from distant towns and even out-of-state. This is the cornerstone of her blessings ministry on Adams Street.

EASTER TORNADOS BRING HIDDEN OPPORTUNITY
Easter Sunday 2020 is a day many will never forget. Tornados touched down in T.J.’s hometown destroying entire neighborhoods. The horror brought back memories of another tornado – in Little Rock years earlier — that T.J. had survived.


An earlier storm had destroyed the metal roof of a church across the street from T.J.’s home. Together with neighbors, T.J. secured the property and removed screws and twisted metal onto her yard. When the tornados hit later, again her own home was spared. She immediately checked on her neighbors and canvassed the area to assess needs.


For the last 15+ years, T. J. has been feeding her neighbors so she knew exactly what had to be done. She always shares what she can personally, and others donate to help her. Thanksgiving and other holidays find her smiling with her tables set out, loaded with enough food to feed 125. “It just feels great to be a blessing to someone,” she explains.


After the tornados, T.J. went door-to-door to find out what her neighbors needed besides food. As a result, in May her tables also held toilet paper, toiletries, and other personal needs that her neighbors were no longer able to get. On top of the storm destruction, a pandemic had taken over the land and made things even harder for the poor. “Everyone is just one disaster away from poverty,” T.J. says. “The joy that I feel when I know that God brings blessings to others through me is the greatest joy anyone can feel.”


If she could have lunch with anyone, living or dead, not surprisingly T.J. would choose three strong women — two former First Ladies, Michele Obama and Hillary Clinton — and her late mother. “I would like to have Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Clinton together, if that could be arranged,” she says with a grin. “What a time we would have!”


But her demeanor turns more serious when she says that lunch with her late mother – perhaps on June 5th, her mother’s birthday — would be a special blessing. T.J. says that she would ask her mother, “Am I making you proud daily?”


No doubt her mother would be extremely proud of the strong, successful, caring woman her daughter has become. Fiercely dedicated both to helping others and to finding joy in each new morning — what mother wouldn’t be proud of that?