Merlene Davis: The life of Joan Taylor, longtime advocate and encourager, is worth celebrating

Joal Neal Taylor died last week at age 79 after a long illness.
Joal Neal Taylor died last week at age 79 after a long illness.

There is no doubt in my mind that after my death there will be hordes of people in line to recount my many faults and misdeeds.

But that is because I am not Joan Neal Taylor.

By all counts, Taylor was ever ready with hugs, encouragement and a broad smile, all of which could lift spirits and brighten cloudy days.

Taylor died Thursday in Lexington after a long illness, leaving many people wondering how to fill that void. She was 79.

"The world doesn't feel as safe without her in it," said Betty Griffin, a retired Kentucky State University professor who knew Taylor for nearly 30 years. "She was mother, big sister, aunt and colleague. Joan didn't know strangers. Once you were hugged by Joan, you were hugged."

Those hugs were preceded by a loud greeting that convinced the person it was directed at that he or she was the only reason the sun was shining at that moment.

Our concerns were more important than hers and we greedily accepted the attention while falling woefully short of returning the favor.

I'll try to do some of that now.

Taylor was born in Lexington and followed in the footsteps of her mother, Jennie Neal, an activist who had a reputation for caring for children and the community.

Taylor attended Dunbar High School and received a bachelor's degree from Howard University. She taught schools in Chicago and Lexington before broadening her focus on education through Lexington's employment and training program and then statewide as a member of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

"I knew her from the Prichard Committee where she served for 26 years," said former Lexington Mayor Pam Miller. "She was very active before she lost her health and she was a strong advocate for children, insisting that all kids could learn if give the right opportunities, particularly inner-city kids."

Pam Sexton, whose late husband, Robert Sexton, served as executive director of the Prichard Committee, said Taylor was not timid.

"She was a spark plug," Sexton said. "She would speak up and out. She always had the interest of not only African American kids, but also all kids. She really knew what it took for kids to thrive and do well."

Taylor's advocacy didn't stop with children. She fought for equal rights for all.

From 1984 to 2004, Taylor served as a liaison for the Office of the Governor making sure no important event was overlooked. She did the same for Lexington mayors.

"When I was mayor and vice mayor, she would call about many issues and give her point of view," said former Lexington Mayor Teresa Isaac.

When Isaac learned of Taylor's death, she felt "complete sadness. We were just recalling all the people she has influenced and all the good she has in her life for this state. There is a hole in this community."

Retired state worker Lee Jackson said Taylor was always available to give advice.

"When she worked in the governor's office, I could always call her and she would give me sound, solid advice about various issues," he said. "She was a mentor and a mother figure to me. She never really focused on herself; she focused on others."

With all that going on, Taylor made time to be one of the founders of the Lexington Black Achiever's Program and the University of Kentucky NCAA Nationals Sports Camp for economically disadvantaged youth.

But most of all, she made time for her family.

Vertner Taylor, her husband of 54 years, said there was so much about his wife that was good.

"She was the loving mother and the philanthropist," he said. "I'll miss her so much as my wife and my kids will miss her as their mother."

The couple's daughter, Dr. Janet E. Taylor, a psychiatrist who serves as a consultant on various national TV programs, was the first to suggest her mother might have Parkinson's Disease after seeing her slowed movements following heart valve surgery.

Still, Joan Taylor tried to keep up the furious pace she that had come to be her life. But her body began to fail her even though her mind was still focused on others.

"My mother was a woman of significance in the sense that she knew who she was," Janet Taylor said Friday. "Because of her humble nature to make others better, she continued to give her best, thanking the nurses and working hard to be strong.

"For me, this is unchartered territory," she said. "I take solace in her strength."

Smith & Smith Funeral Home are handling the arrangements that have not been finalized. Janet Taylor said she and her brother, former Tates Creek High School basketball standout Vince Taylor, who assisted head coach Tubby Smith at the University of Minnesota, plan to make the farewell to their mother a celebration.

And that is just as it should be for a woman who gave so much love and encouragement to others.

"Never in my life have I heard her say a negative word about anyone," said Griffin who had known Joan Taylor since 1985.

"They don't make them like that anymore. She was such an encourager. You would never have thought she had any problems. She was always positive."

If she was that positive in life, we should not allow her death to be a discouragement.

"We should remember her as a woman who lived life," said Juanita Betz Peterson, a friend of nearly 30 years. "She was a dignified, caring person who everyone respected and really, truly loved as a human being."

Indeed, that is someone to celebrate.