In Memory of MT Vann

On December 31, 2016 we lost a great friend, former Phoenix Center Board President and community leader, MT Vann. Her life touched so many, bringing out over 800 to her Celebration of Life on January 6, 2017. Below is the eulogy written and read by Phoenix Center Excutive Director Jonna J. Cooley PhD.

You’ve Got A Friend – Eulogy for MT Vann

Good morning. I was just thinking that the last time I was in this room it was with MT.  That was a joyous occasion in June and now here we are… Life truly is  a mystery. While this might be one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, I am honored to be a part of this Celebration of the Life of MT Vann.

Around 5pm a week ago today MT was sitting on the couch in our living room. We were talking about the holidays, our friend Danielle Zellers who was in the hospital, and life in general. As she went to leave we made plans to go to dinner next Saturday at Happy Sushi. At 7:01 a.m. the next morning MT called my cell phone.  First of all, MT and 7:01 a.m. do not belong in the same sentence. She said “Girls, I am not feeling well, could you come over I may need you to take me to the hospital.” My partner Lisa and I were out the door within a few minutes. With 911 called we broke into her house and while we all tried life saving measures, we all know the outcome.

As Lisa and I followed the ambulance to the hospital in the hopes they could work a miracle at the hospital, we talked about the how we wish MT could tell us what to do…how to fix this.  When M’s dear friend Maggie Cluck got to the hospital she said, “what do we do? MT would be the one telling us all what we need to do.” It is so true. MT was a leader. A passionate, driven, cuss like a sailor leader.  She was a leader in the real estate community, the auction community, the recovery community, the LGBT community, the Springfield community.  Most importantly, when she was leading, she motivated you and you wanted to be involved. I have been with her and seen her, in her leader role and in her role as friend, resolve conflict, address important and difficult issues, and confront those with whom she had issue. The cool thing about MT, in this my way or the highway world we live in, is that she listened – really listened to what others had to say.

I think my partner Lisa said it best- MT was like a security blanket. A security blanket is defined as a “comfort object”, an item to provide psychological comfort especially in unique and unusual situations.  Many consider the comfort that a security blanket provides essential to mental well-being. Raise your hand if you ever called on MT for help when you found yourself in a situation? If she was ever YOUR security blanket.

That woman was always helping someone. She was there as a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a sponsor, a friend, a colleague, a neighbor, a realtor, an auctioneer, an activist, a mentor, a role model. She was there if you needed to talk, if you needed a hug, if you needed a ride, if you needed a few bucks, if you needed a house or a job, she was there if you needed a plumber, an electrician, a builder, a mechanic, …. Any kind of repair person. What would she always say..?? “I’VE GOT A GUY!” and she did! Raise your hand if she ever told you “I’ve got a guy!”

As a security blanket, that woman was worn thin. She helped so many people in so many ways. A typical day might include showing a house, going to the wake of a family friend, closing a deal, doing a repair for someone, visiting a sick friend, going to a recovery meeting, doing a charity auction, playing poker til 3 a.m. and making and taking calls and texts all hours of the day. On the news of her death I saw incredible posts on FB speaking to this very thing. level 3 bedroom house because it was the first thing we could find after my dad passing away. She helped us get a bigger and better house. Better than we could ever imagine. But beyond all of that, she helped me become who I am. She helped me become more comfortable in my own skin. She made it to where I wasn’t uncomfortable anywhere I went just because I was a lesbian. I can never thank her enough for changing my world the way she did. And to her it was nothing. It’s what she loves to do. But to me it was everything. M.T. I’m going to continue to do good in this world just like you did. Thank you for being absolutely amazing. Thank you for blessing me with you in my life. We will always love you. I hope you’re flying high right now.People describe her as being vibrant, fierce, dedicated, kind, humble, generous, honest, giving, smart, a kick-ass lady! Barrett Vann called MT her “take no shit aunt”. Some of the comments included “She changed my life”, “She put my business on the map”, “ She will never know the impact she had”, ”She was my biggest fan”, “She made a difference in every life she touched”, “She was always there to offer comfort”, “I never walked away empty handed when I went to her for advice”, “She always offered unconditional love and kindness”, “She built bridges and brought people together as no one else could”,….. the comments go on and on.  IL Senator Andy Manar wrote – “MT was wonderful – so strong and so passionate…but I think Stacey Hester, one of MTs favorite local artists, said it best… “She was one of the few angels disguised as a person I have ever had the privilege of knowing.” She was all of this and so much more.

There were 2 stories that really struck me as they epitomized who MT was. The first was posted by Kaitlyn Cearlock. She wrote “When I was 18 M.T. Vann was introduced into my life. She met my mom when my mom first started to get sober. She helped my mom get better. She helped my world get better just by helping my Mom. She helped my mom get a job out at the auction gallery without hardly even knowing my mom. Once again, helped my world get better. The auction gallery became the family we never had but always wanted. We lived in a tiny level 3 bedroom house because it was the first thing we could find after my dad passing away. She helped us get a bigger and better house. Better than we could ever imagine. But beyond all of that, she helped me become who I am. She helped me become more comfortable in my own skin.3 bedroom house because it was the first thing we could find after my dad passing away. She helped us get a bigger and better house. Better than we could ever imagine. But beyond all of that she helped me become who I am. She helped me become more comfortable in my own skin. She made it so I wasn’t uncomfortable everywhere I went just because I was a lesbian. I can never thank her enough for changing my world the way she did. To her it was nothing, it’s what she loved to do. To me it was everything. MT I am going to continue to do good in this world just like you did. Thank you for being absolutely amazing.”

The second was by Tori Branda. She wrote..“I moved to Springfield looking for a better life with just what I could pack in my car. M.T. was one of the first people to help me on my feet, emotionally, socially, spiritually. I remember making a bad decision at one point, and I walked up the steps and M.T. said, “you want to talk? Let’s go.” She managed to make me want to do better and be better without making me feel guilty or ashamed. When I got my first management position and had no decent clothes to wear, she slipped me a handful of cash to go buy work clothes. I told her I’d pay her back with my first check, and she told me just to pay it forward. The world would be a better place if we were all a little bit more like M.T.”

As the Executive Director of the Phoenix Center I had the privilege of working with MT who served on the Board of Directors for over 8 years. She was both Vice-President and President. She was my rock. She was by my side as we grew the agency and made it Central Illinois LGBT Community Center. She was always supportive of my vision and she did everything in her power to make it happen. She was the auctioneer at our Fall GAYla every year, picking on people in the crowd until she shamed them into spending money. She was a mentor to many LGBT young people, getting to know those involved in the Phoenix Center yOUTh group. She saw many of them age out of the group and maintained friendships with them…Megan, Brittany, Brice, Chris, Alex and so many more. She always said she wondered how different our lives (us old folks) would have been if we would have had a group to go to when we were struggling. MT has been an icon in the LGBT community, winning the CORAL award for dedication and service to the LGBT Community in Central IL, being made an honorary board member of the Phoenix Center after her term limits had expired, and fighting for equality in every way possible.

When I would have a problem with a resident in the housing program at the Center and I was at my wits end, I would call MT. Most of the problems were addiction related and I knew she could talk recovery with them like nobody else. She would call it her “come to Jesus meeting”. This meant if you don’t straighten up and take responsibility for your own actions, you will find yourself looking for a new place to live.  She would confront them about what they were doing that was going to get them kicked out. All of them, men, women, black, white, gay, straight…. Listened and respected what she had to say. As Mother Teresa said, “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless”. It was not only what she said to them, but how she said it. She was stern and direct but there was always love attached to her words and they felt that. Did it always work – no. Did they always remember MT Vann – yes.

For me personally, MT was a dear friend. She was comfortable – being with her was like being home. Years ago she was over helping me fix a plumbing issue. She gave me crap because I didn’t know how to do the repair myself. She asked me for a tool she needed and I didn’t have it. She looked up at me and said, “Babe, you’re gonna lose your card!” I said, “what card”, she said “your lesbian card”. You can’t profess to be a lesbian if you don’t have the tools!”

She would frustrate me as she ran on what I liked to call MT Time….which equated to ALWAYS late. But when she came flying into the room, with her Starbucks Venti Americano saying…helllloooooo, I would always remember that the wait was worth it! When we were talking about this a couple of days ago, Duane Williams, added and she would then say (after coming in 5-10 minutes late) “catch me up”…. And like fools we would!!

She was one of the 3 people I can tell you her phone number and not have to look it up…that is how many times I have called her. When something good happened, I would want to call MT and share the news, when I faced a difficult decision or had a problem, I would reach out to her for help or advice.  I always knew that she would make time to talk and she would never make me feel like I was bothering her…even if I was. She would always have words of comfort and, in the end of the conversation say “It’s all good babe” or  “this too shall pass” and on hanging up the phone she would say “call me if you need me” or  “love you, mean it”….there it was, that security blanket. Raise your hand if she ever those things to you!

What I loved most about MT- she was who she was. She didn’t pretend, she didn’t care what others thought, she was out and she was proud. She never met a stranger and she never stopped helping, giving, and doing no matter how busy her schedule got. She wore her pride on her sleeve, literally wearing her PrideFest shirts all over the city. She wore those damn crocs and no matter how many people told her to stop, she wouldn’t and didn’t care what they thought! She would show up for events and charity auctions wearing her trademark tux & brooch looking fabulous. She and Kim would stay up all hours of the night playing poker where she made even more friends. She refused to get out of the bed early, I don’t care who you were. Recently I sent her a message and asked for her help tomove a washer and dryer using her truck. She said what time? I said, around 8 am. She said, “I love you but I don’t do 8 am.!”

This is what I know about MT. She loved her famileS. There is her Vann family. Wow was this woman committed to them. She loved and cared for her parents with a passion and dedication I can’t describe. She talked to me many times about her brothers – Kevin, Dennis, Les, Gerry, and Dave, their families, especially one family member that she called Miss Violet. Her friend and assistant at PPS, Sarah Disney, told me that MT referred to her family or her childhood almost every day. There was so much pride when she spoke of them.

Family for M also included her pets that her petsitter & friend, Ellen Coaty, calls the “Vannimals” – her wiener dogs Maddie, Tucker, and Stella, her cats Queenie, Jazzy, and Tigger. There was her work family – John Kerstein her business partner, Sarah Disney her assistant and the rest of the crew at PPS along with her co-workers at Doyle auction gallery.

There was her LGBT family whom she loved and supported. For her Springfield PrideFest was like a big family reunion. Wow..the things she has done for this family!

And there was her Recovery Community family. She credited this group with saving her life. Not being a part of the recovery community myself I learned so much about addiction and recovery from her. Most people are private about their addiction issues, MT spoke out. She wanted people to know it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay have a past. Being a part of this family since February 29, 1992, she had quite the reputation, being known for her kindness and generosity helping so many in so many ways. In the words of Tracy Cearlock on FB “She was that kind of awesome!” Please join me in honoring the recovery community, she held so dear, by reciting the Serenity Prayer.

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

MT loved growing up on Douglas Street, she loved driving a pick-up truck (that also served as an office), working with her hands, and laughing. She loved going to Maggie Cluck’s pool in the summer to float and relax, she loved the beautiful color of her Ginko tree in the fall, good sushi, good political discussion, and Rachel Maddow. She loved wheeling and dealing. The day she died I stopped by Prairie Property Solutions to talk to John Kerstein. There was a conversation going on in the lobby, where 2 grown men were clearly grieving her death. One said, he had never met anyone like her. She was an amazing negotiator and she worked very hard for her customers. People saw what she did for others and they loved and respected her for it.

On November 8 we gathered at the Phoenix Center for an election party. As the night went on I saw the hope and excitement drain out of MTs face as Mr. Trump became the clear winner of the Electoral College. I think part of her heart broke that night. She wasn’t able to work her magic to fix it and the reality was too much for her. Instead of sitting back defeated and complaining, she got involved in the local “Action For A Better Tomorrow” group in an effort to generate change. Everywhere she was present there was change.

A quote from one of MT’s favorite people, President Barack Obama -“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek”.  MT created change, change for the better, every day of her life. Yesterday Steve Meyer from Meyer’s Commercial Realty came by to drop off a check in memory of MT. He said, “If there is one thing I learned from MT it was to do for others and give back.”Let’s all carry on the work that she did. On the Christian calendar, January 6th is Epiphany. I think it is our epiphany, from this tragic loss, should be to do better – to give back. Let’s help those in need, let’s stand up for others, let’s all be better friends and better people, let’s carry on her legacy. That, my friends, is what she would have wanted.

In closing, there is a song that describes what it was like to be MT Vann’s friend. “You’ve Got A Friend. Let’s all sing it together to MT and to each other. Thank you for being here and God Bless you all for being a part of this wonderful lady’s life.