University of Findlay Distinguished Alumna Jeanne (Wolfe ’71) Kelly
For Findlay College/University of Findlay alumna Jeanne (Wolfe ’71) Kelly, music, long ago, became a way of life. Now, it has earned her a spot alongside some terrifically recognizable people on the inaugural HelpAge USA 60 over 60 list, an honor given to 60 Americans over 60 who are making significant contributions to society at the local, national, or international level.
With her on the 60 over 60 award list are instantly recognizable names like Tom Hanks, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dolly Parton, and Jimmy Carter, among many others. “I thought when I was contacted about it and read the list that someone was playing a joke on me,” she said. “These are great people. People who have contributed a great deal to the aging community. Encore has certainly done that also. I am thrilled to be included on this list.”
Jeanne, who regularly signs her correspondence with the call to “SING ON,” felt compelled at a young age to use her vocal talents to express herself. She attended a small high school in her hometown of Catasauqua, PA, and was first inspired, she said, by a very good chorus conductor who took an interest in her and encouraged her to sing. “I was in all-state chorus, was chosen to go up to Boston to sing, was in a big national chorus,” she said, “and I initially wanted to go to college in Philadelphia, but my father chose Findlay College for me, as it was a safer place for his daughter, so off to Findlay I went!”
Through Susanne Aultz, a voice instructor at Findlay College, Jeanne really became interested in the possibility of voice as a career and not simply as a passion. At the end of her sophomore year, Jeanne was accepted to the prestigious Ambler Music Festival on the campus of Temple University, where, in its heyday, the stage was graced by legendary performers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. It went so well that the head of the choral program tried to poach Jeanne and get her to finish out her academic career there. “My father said no,” she explained. “[But] through singing at that festival, I realized for sure that it was actually what I wanted to do for a living.”
Later, Jeanne created Encore Creativity for Older Adults, the nation’s largest choral organization for adults over the age of 55. It boasts 15 chorales and six Encore ROCKS rock and roll choruses, as well as a chorale in New York City. Jeanne also started a choral program, Sentimental Journey Singers, for those with early Alzheimer’s or dementia. All of the organizations and programs have had extremely therapeutic results for everyone involved. “[To perform together] is physically, mentally, and emotionally important for all of the singers,” she explained. “The best thing you can do for your lungs is sing, and, psychologically speaking, it’s great to be around people who share your interest.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, like it did for nearly everything in its path, created a challenge for the program. “Suddenly everyone was in their house and fighting isolation,” Jeanne said. “We had to do something.” So, she and husband Larry, a partner on the business side of Encore, started Encore University, an online program offering sessions on musical theory, technique, and music history, as well as choral rehearsals and frequent sing-a-longs. It became a huge success, both nationally and internationally.
Jeanne recently stepped down as the artistic director of Encore, but will remain the conductor of three of the chorales. In her retirement from directing the program, Jeanne and Larry plan to sail their boat to the Bahamas in the fall. It’s yet another way that she can discover new joys for the same reason that she nurtures singing in herself and in others: keeping the spark lit well into life.
Jeanne presented “Achieving Mental and Physical Happiness through Involvement with the Arts” at UF’s Fridays at Findlay executive speaker series in March, and said it’s an equally meaningful honor to do such things for her alma mater. To UF students, she offers the same advice that she does for the older creative performers under her guidance. “You have to always be absolutely driven,” she said. “You can’t stop that passion for even one day.”