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by Ellen Simmons
It is said that for every occasion, there’s an appropriate song. One song running through my mind is ‘For Good,’ from “Wicked”. The refrain goes: “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”
I believe many of us who knew Jo Ellen Ploeger, who died last week after a long, determined, courageous struggle against cancer would agree. And, as I read numerous Facebook tribute posts of friends and colleagues of Jo Ellen from all over the country, I realize just what a quiet difference one person can make in the lives of not just other people, but an entire community.
Our LGBT rainbow community was especially blessed by her presence, her steady, prayerful activism. Quiet. Steady. Sustained. Encouraging.
Jo, who passed just one year short of 70, was a loving partner to Karen Dillaman for 33 years. She was also a loving mom, grandma, and an energetic sibling. She loved dogs, cats, sports, handsome women. She had a fantastic gift for seeing into and right through a person – a strong, two-spirited, Native American connection to the spirit world.
We celebrated Jo’s memory at Saturday’s crowded memorial service, MCC-Detroit. In our collective hearts, minds, memories the life of this most extraordinary woman was honored. For me, as a church member and a choir member with her, she was the most deeply spiritual person I’ve ever encountered.
Jo was Christian in the most positive sense, with faith as the cornerstone of her being. This distinctive faith was so much a natural part of her that she didn’t have to broadcast it. If you talked to Jo for more than a couple of minutes, you would know she loved and walked with God every minute of her life.
Her Cherokee background added another layer to her spiritual makeup. If Jo was part of ceremonies such as Holy Unions, she would include that element of spirituality in a deeply touching, uniquely personal way. Jo spent many years as a MCCD deacon, and as such Jo truly was the spiritual backbone and heart of the church.
She made welcome every person who walked through the sanctuary doors.
Jo Ellen Ploeger touched my life from the moment we met in 1988. In 2004, she and Karen Dillaman provided loving strength and personal care when I struggled with breast cancer. They let me stay at their home, and Jo faced the fear with me when we took my bandage off for the first time to see the surgical scars and empty space.
Jo went through the ‘cancer experience’ three times herself and once with Karen. She knew I needed loving support to handle my own personal encounter. These two determined women went on to found Walking Together Ministry of MCC Detroit, a support group, assisting people facing life-threatening illness.
As loving, committed partners Karen and Jo were outstanding at raising money for the American Cancer Society and at helping folks get through what is, for many, the darkest hours of their lives.
Jo laughed often, loved a good time, especially if it involved dressing in costumes! She and Karen hosted amazing gatherings, including their 25th anniversary party at the Detroit Zoo. Jo’s wicked sense of humor was legendary, matching her heart’s capacity for love boundless.
She resolutely walked her own path and was more true to herself than anyone else I’ve ever known. Jo was a person whom you never forget. She was the person who brought a smile to every face whenever she walked into a room. Once you met her, you were affected by her from that moment on.
Jo is a reminder of what the human race can be when we are our best selves. Our thoughts and sympathies go to Karen, who loved Jo best for so many decades, her sons, grandson, siblings.
Tribute, by Charles Alexander
After Jo passed away, Karen wrote: “I spent the last hour going through little slips of paper in Jo’s Bible. This one made me smile. It’s so “her”: ‘Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it – Mark Twain”. I know that when Jo walked into heaven, everyone smiled.
We have all been blessed and transformed by Jo, no matter how long we knew her. This one person truly did change our world – for the better. God bless you, Jo. Eternal peace and presence.