That was Jane

Posted: Feb 15, 2006 12:01 AM

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - The year was 1957, the governor of Arkansas was Orval Faubus, and the question was whether he was going to get away with keeping nine black children out of a Little Rock high school. Before it was resolved, a constitutional crisis was ignited, and public education itself threatened.

He didn't get away with it. Now, one by one, the members of the Women's Emergency Committee, the group that saved Little Rock's public schools when the men couldn't, recede into history and even myth. The latest to leave us was my friend Jane Mendel.

I'd bet that everybody in the throng that turned out for Jane Mendel's memorial service felt they shared a deep, personal, unique bond with her - the kind of special bond no one else could.

Even more remarkable, each did.

That was Jane. She connected with people. Personally. One by one.

Jane Billstein Mendel, who lived to be 81 years young, was one of the brightest stars in that constellation of ladies. You might even say she was the key to it, since she was the head of the telephone chain that sent the word out to everybody else when anything was needed - a good turnout at the polls, a show of support at a school board meeting, baked goods, you name it.

Miss Jane had the perfect personality for the job - friendly, engaging, charming . . . and tireless.

Despite the light air with which she went through life (what a joy she was to be with!) Jane was utterly serious - even urgent - about some things. Like justice. Like stewardship. Like treating people as people.

The French might call hers a sense of noblesse oblige. The Jews call it being a mensch - a decent person in all respects. Southerners just call it being a lady.

Her two favorite words, whether reacting to a witticism or coloring with her great-grandchild, were Delicious! and Adorable! She was as sharp as a whole box of tacks, and as kind as she was sharp.

The lady may have been utterly serious about seeing that wrongs were righted and justice done in this world, but she was never solemn about it. Like many another political operative, she was adept at poker. And knew her Scotches.

Jane also knew that a soft word not only turneth away wrath but could get things done. Before you knew it, she had you on her side. Or if she didn't, you wished you were. Her side always seemed to be having more fun.

How a woman born and reared in Toledo, Ohio, would become the perfect Southern lady, as in Iron Magnolia, I have no idea, but, as I said, she was sharp. It didn't take her any time at all to adjust to almost any social setting, including a move south of Mason-Dixon's when she married a Southern boy.

It wasn't so much the things she did that came to mind when folks thought about Jane, but how she did them - with a twinkle in her eye and, behind it, an intelligence that saw right through you, for good or ill.

Her B.S. detector must have been on automatic; it was never turned off. But she tactfully didn't say everything she thought, thank God, and for that we lesser beings will always be grateful.

This was Jane Mendel: The only text in the program handed out at her memorial service, besides the traditional prayers and the dates of her birth and death, were the simple words on the cover: May the work I've done speak for me.

It does - eloquently. Just as, lest we forget, the work we do here will speak for all of us.

At the end of the service, the crowd at the temple milled around for the longest time, as if loath to leave the memory of Jane. Then, as each of the mourners left, they were handed a small bottle of champagne in accordance with her last wishes. In her friendly but firm manner, Jane had left only two instructions for the service - "Tell the rabbi to keep the eulogy under 20 minutes, and get everyone a glass of champagne."

That was Jane - bubbly, hospitable, generous, life-enhancing. She was a champagne kind of girl long after she was no longer a girl.

They say the light we see from distant stars may come to us long after the star itself has gone. That was Jane, too. She still shines.