A Tribute to Patriot and Music Legend Janie Thompson

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Dnews copy work Janie Thompson UVLIt is with great sadness, but incredible gratitude, that I write this tribute.  An icon – a legend – passed way on June 1, 2013 at age 91: our dear Janie Thompson.

We all thought, imagined, and hoped Janie would live forever.

Janie was born with remarkable God-given, natural talent. She was a big band lead singer and performed with famous singers and musicians from L.A. to New York in her earlier years.  She was a performer, pianist, arranger, composer and teacher/mentor to thousands who will never forget her influence.

Janie Thompson was the founder of the Brigham Young University Program Bureau ( a collection of student variety talents), the BYU Young Ambassadors (a song and dance troupe) and also the Lamanite Generation (later the Living Legends, a Polynesian/American Indian/Multi-Cultural performing group that featured their individual cultural talents).  Janie had one goal for each of these groups: to counter the evil side of the entertainment industry with positive, inspirational entertainment.

Those of us who worked under her tutelage learned how wholesome entertainment was not corny after all, but could actually be popular.  She emphasized that the Adversary used music, lyrics, song and dance to undercut faith and religion, and she instilled in us a desire to use our talents for good, to counter evil, and to uplift and inspire others to do good.

Every rehearsal and performance began with a prayer.  Between shows for the troops she squeezed in performances and Sunday “firesides” for LDS audiences.  She went “by the spirit.”  You never knew who she’d call on next to sing or talk.  When you heard your name, you jumped up and you were “on.”

She required modest costuming, and how well we remember those white “pantaloons” – the culotte skirts we wore under our dresses so that when we danced and the skirts flew out, our legs would be covered.  What a contrast to today’s dance competitions.  To many, probably laughable.

In the 1950’s – 1970’s she directed tours through the Department of Defense to military installations worldwide to cheer up the troops.  When the Department of Defense asked her group to wear “skimpy clothes,” she said to the college kids, “We’re not going to compromise our values.  You go on that stage and do the best show you’ve ever given.”

So there we were dancing around in dresses to our knees with pantaloons and culottes underneath.  But to the servicemen, that didn’t matter.  They were on their feet cheering everywhere we went.  She knew how to put on the best entertaining shows.

When it was Janie’s moment in the spotlight, we were in awe.  Nothing that girl couldn’t do.  She had a lot of heart in real life, but she melted every serviceman’s heart with her sparkling eyes singing “You Gotta Have Heart.”

She was a cheerleader and could make something out of nothing.  No student was left out.  “Can you carry a flag?”  And they were on that stage!  She believed in every single student that showed up and wanted to do something onstage.

As the LDS bishop struggled to read the funeral script throughout the service, he suddenly stopped and said, “This is my first funeral ever.  You can imagine my terror knowing that it’s for one of the most famous people around.”  The congregation burst into laughter.  But I couldn’t help but believe that Janie was pulling for him and in that moment she would have overlooked it and showed that big heart of hers to encourage him along.

But … no greater wrath hath BYU students known than Janie Thompson at the piano if during a dress rehearsal you missed your cue or were out of place on stage (even during an occasional live performance!), and nothing shook the earth more than to watch Janie Thompson breaking down in tears during a dress rehearsal when we didn’t get it right.  (I know we gave her those ulcers.)

She was an energetic driver in those rehearsals, and an example of her passion for family, faith and freedom. We always knew how much she loved us even when she had a “Janie moment” and that she regarded her role as her lifelong mission.  Never married, she was Mother to us all. We are all one of Janie’s Kids.She came from an enormously talented family of classical and opera singers.  She wrote, “I was the black sheep of the family – I stuck with pop music.”  And wow, look where it got her!  She had terrific comedic timing with her own show-stopping solos and her humorous parodies.

My brother Carl Bacon tells me that when she came to L.A. in 1949, she attended the Wishire Ward congregation of the Mormon Church along with my older brothers and sister.  (I was not yet born.)  She hung out in our Hollywood home and performed in our large sunken living room that had a landing with stairs that made a great stage.  She wrote her first parody – for my oldest brother Ken – before he left for his LDS mission to Holland.

One of my favorites of her “parodies” always brought the house down –  “I’ve Been Everywhere, Man” – and she really had been everywhere.  By the end of her career, few towns and countries were left out.  When she performed it for the servicemen, they cheered wildly when she sang out their home town.  Take a listen – it’s a treasure:

Janie: the Patriot
skousenJanie also nurtured in me – and all of us – a sense of patriotism and a love of our country’s founding on stage during my college years. She taught us how to share those patriotic convictions in music.

Janie was a personal friend of Cleon Skousen, the author of the well-known book The 5,000 Year Leap and The Naked Communist. Cleon had a great deal of influence on Janie, encouraging her to use music to cut through the terrible anti-Americanism of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, it was Cleon Skousen that saw her performing in New York City and called BYU President Ernest Wilkinson and told him he needed her at BYU.  She retold the story of how she was pursuing a career in Hollywood when she got the call from President Wilkinson and how she cried all the way in the car to Provo leaving her career behind – not knowing that she would go on to help launch many careers of others whose lives she changed.

Cleon had a strong influence on her patriotism.  Her shows always included her signature finale: “The Patriotic Section,” a medley of songs including “What’s More American?” and a Janie original “The United States of America,” recognizing something unique about every state in the union, and then the raising of the Statue of Liberty.

Janie brought us together in our talents and showed us how to share with others our deepest convictions through music, whether about life, our faith, or our patriotism.

It was Janie Thompson’s love of our country’s founding and the Founders and her patriot enthusiasm that instilled in me a desire to keep those principles alive.  This was during the tumultuous Sixties and early 1970s when the Left was attempting to mock and tear down these founding principles.

Indeed, years later when I ran for U.S. Senate in Utah, Janie Thompson’s sense of respect for the Republic and the Patriot ideals she taught guided the principles for which I stood in that election – and that I still revere.

Janie: the Matchmaker

What memories, lifelong friendships, and a love of using our talents to uplift and inspire she gave all of us who worked with her in our college years! She was also a matchmaker for many with her famous annual “Mix and Match” socials, lining us up for an evening of music, fun, food and dancing. She lined me up on a “blind date” with the young man that became the father of my five children, for which I’m eternally grateful. How many couples she matched for eternity is unknown, but it was significant.  What a blessing she has been to those future generations of children for which she is responsible!

Janie’s Sheratons Trio: A Personal Journey
For over 15 years, beginning in junior high school in Southern California, I sang in a trio of girls with LeeAndra Marsh Lowe (the Lowe Family of Branson/Nashville) and Nancy Startup Schultz (Brea, California). Our dream in life was to audition for Janie’s Program Bureau. Marilyn Christensen, Klea Worsley’s daughter, was our coach in Arcadia, California. Marilyn arranged awesome medleys and arrangements so we came to BYU with an entire package. Klea Worsley was the creative director for another performing group at BYU, Sounds of Freedom. LeeAndra, Nancy and I were scared little Freshmen when we auditioned for the BYU Program Bureau, and we were so thrilled to be cast in the Freshman Talent Show and then invited to be in the Homecoming “Fieldhouse Frolics” that year.

Say It With Music TourJanie quickly grabbed us to go on one of two “Say It With Music” tours stateside – southeastern states, and a “Caribbean Tour” with the Department of Defense that took us to Panama, Puerto Rico and the isolated isle of Eleuthra. It was then that I decided I had never seen such a beautiful color of blue than that surrounding waters on that pristine island. In the summer of 1969 while on that tour, we watched the flight to the moon together, an amazing memory.

We stayed in LDS member’s homes for our one-night stands across the stateside leg of our tours.  I especially remember walking into the bedroom in our host’s Tampa home, and the bed was literally covered with some kind of huge roaches.  I used all my theatrical skills to mask my horror while the host nonchalantly showed us how to sweep them off the bed, which she did in one swoop. They scattered off into who knows where.

On another occasion, in Biloxi, MS when we turned on the tub water, it came out … green. We also ate a whole lot of southern fried chicken and grits.  It was the real thing.

Weathering the Storms
Together we weathered some real storms, literally. Miracles always followed Janie, and shows were protected from cancellation because she taught us to pray that the weather would hold up.

As we traveled up the east coast on our bus, we were literally ahead of a terrible hurricane pelleting the coastline up and down with torrents of rain. Finally we arrived at our destination, in the shadows of Yale University in Connecticut and we unloaded the bus to meet with our hosts for the night. LeeAndra and I were sitting in the back seat of the car when she said, “Cherilyn, I’m really sick to my stomach. I think I’m going to throw up.” I didn’t take her seriously. “Well, don’t do it on me!” I joked.  And then I distanced myself.  But she got urgent, and so I rolled down the window. To make things worse, our hosts were French and didn’t speak English so well.

By the time we pulled into the driveway, I knew she was serious.  She quickly got out and leaned over into the flower bed and let it rip. I felt so terrible for her, in fact it felt like an empathy reaction: I got sick to my stomach too. We got settled and were sharing a bed in the guest room. She was violently ill. Without much warning, I was next. All night we took turns in the bathroom, trying not to disturb our hosts. It was awful. “Cherilyn, call my dad. I need to go home.” We were both so sick. We each talked to our parents to let them know we were dying.

The next morning, we could hardly walk. We had no energy to get dressed, but we had to get to the early morning bus departure on time so we wouldn’t miss the next show stop. When we arrived, in all our pajama splendor, to our astonishment, nearly everyone else on the bus had had a similar night. And we weren’t the only ones in our PJ’s! That poor bus driver had to make several unplanned stops along the way, and the bus didn’t smell so pleasant either.

We arrived in the Boston area, and were immediately quarantined in the LDS Church building. Still sick as dogs, we spent the afternoon lying on the chapel floor, probably a first ever! This is where Janie’s extraordinary faith sustained us. She taught us so many great things about performing on stage and how to sell a song, but we knew it was her extreme faith that she wanted most to teach us.

This time in our prayer meeting before the show, we were all fervently praying that somehow we would be able to get through that show.  Janie taught us that the show had to go on, and that the Lord wanted us to do it and that He would bless us.

It was in a high school gym. Literally, performers would be on stage dancing and singing as if nothing were wrong, and then they would run off and throw up in the locker room bathrooms and recover in time for the next number they were in.  It was remarkable that not a step was missed, not a number left out of the line up, and we got through it. LeeAndra and I survived, and we didn’t go home.

We had so much fun traveling in those buses. With a group of entertainers on board, there was never a dull moment. At any time, the bus driver’s microphone could be taken over and you would here, “What will it take to please you?” Upon which someone would raise their hand and suggest some ridiculous and silly challenge or feat that another tour member would have to perform on the spot.

A favorite initiation prank was the “Ugliest Man in the World” in which someone “in the know” would volunteer to stand under a blanket at the front of the bus. Two people would then volunteer to dare to witness the “ugliest man in the world” by lifting up that blanket. The commentator was melodrama to the max. Upon viewing the “ugliest man in the world” the first two volunteers would scream and faint dead away, always outdoing the other in their sudden death from the sight of UGLY.

Then the unknowing victim stood to view the ugliest man in the world, now believing that they could outdo the other two death performances. As they lifted up the blanket, the “ugliest man in the world” upon sight of the unknowing victim, would let out the worst, bloodcurdling scream and fall to the floor, while everyone on the bus laughed hysterically at the victim left standing there realizing they had just been “had.”

It kept us laughing and free from boredom on those long bus trips.

On one commercial flight, Alan Cherry dressed up in the stewardess’s apron and did his comedy routine, and the trio pulled an unsuspecting stranger out of his seat to be our latest victim singing “You’ve Got Possibilities” to him.  The entire jetliner was in hysterics.  Can you imagine that happening today?  We’d probably be carted off as terrorist threats!

It was always in good fun. Alan made everyone laugh.  He loved to sit next to me when we ate because, well, I didn’t eat much and he liked the “left-overs.”

But one of the favorite things we did, because of Janie’s strong faith, was when we had to travel on a Sunday, usually on our trip back home, we held a testimony meeting right on those buses. As each of us stood to express our love of Christ and the experiences we had had together that strengthened that bond in Christ, our faith grew.  Those memories have sustained me throughout my life.

If only we could be on an eternal Program Bureau tour.  (I imagine Janie’s arranging for that right now.)

Near Misses
While overseas in the Caribbean Command, we learned that in the military, you “hurry up and wait.” We had to be at airports three hours in advance. And then we waited. But we also had some hair-raising experiences with military aircraft. On one occasion we were strapped into our seats along the sides of the plane military-style on a small twin engine prop, a C-27? (can’t remember exactly).  As it rolled down the runway for take-off, we heard two big pops.  Both engines had blown.  So glad we were on the ground for that one.

On a flight over the Caribbean we noticed the crew unscrewing the floor in the center of the aisle and climbing down inside the plane.  We asked what they were doing. “The hydraulic pressure isn’t working – the landing gear – and we’re trying to fix it.”  LeeAndra and I were sitting next to each other.  I asked, “So what does that mean?”  They said, “Well, if we can’t get it to work, we’ll just have to belly in.”

Now I was ready to throw up.  We held hands and were scared to death and silently praying.  But then they came up and announced it had been fixed, and we wondered if they had just been pulling our legs.  When we arrived at the runway, we saw the fire trucks along the terminal and realized it was for real.  All went well for the landing. But the best was yet to come…

Young Ambassadors Expo 70

Founding Members of Young Ambassadors (l-r): Leah (Richards) Pitzak, Cherilyn (Bacon/Gulbrandsen) Eagar, Melinda (Cummings) Cameron, Harry Schultz, Clint Johnson, Scott Taylor, Sandy (Mueller/Taylor) Pederson, Alan Cherry, LeeAndra (Marsh) Lowe, Kim Cameron, Nancy (Startup) Schultz, Vicky Cox, Lonna (Ballard) Smoot and Tom Zimmerman.

Young Ambassadors is Born
In 1969, Janie, along with Harry Schultz and producer Jimmy Lawrence founded a new concept: The Young Ambassadors. In 1970, Janie was asked by the Department of Defense to gather a group to represent U.S. Colleges abroad at the Osaka, Japan Expo 70. Norm Nielson, an alumni who had been a great emcee and comedic performer with Program Bureau, and Janie came up with an idea that the group would be “ambassadors” and “young” not because we were all youthful students, but because we represented Brigham Young University. Hence, the Young Ambassadors.

She invited the Sheratons trio to go on this tour, and as founding members, we were all part of creating an entirely different show and format. That’s me sitting on the left wing of the plane, above lovely Leah, the blonde Barbie, on the far left.

Leah was hysterical.  No matter where we were on military bases, the guys would just flock to her every need.  When we got off the bus, she would bat her long, thick eyelashes and say, “Could one of you help me with my costume bag?” and they were at heel.

We had live instruments on tour, not just Janie at the piano.  We sang more contemporary hits along with the standards, and it was not so much a variety show featuring ventriloquists and juggling acts, etc.  It was song and dance with some comedy sketches in between. When Harry Schultz, a jazz trumpeter with multi-talents also in blue grass, lobbied for the Beatles’ “A Little Help from My Friends,” and Blood Sweat and Tears’ “Spinning Wheel,” we were charting new territory.

But when we suggested a medley from Hair, we thought Janie would have a nervous breakdown when she cried and cried about not wanting “The Age of Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In,” as the finale because it was symbolic of the war protests and the counterculture!

She was right.  We were all very naive back then.

The patriotic finale became Fifth Dimensions’ “Declaration,” which used the exact words from the Declaration of Independence, and was one of my all-time favorites. Although the counter-culture of the day would have put an anti-American spin on that song, we turned it upside down and the troops went crazy because it was our tribute to them for defending the Constitution, religious liberty and freedom from Communism.

The girls trio I sang with – The Sheratons – oddly got our name from the Huntington Sheraton Hotel in Southern California where we had publicity photos taken by Paul Proctor, the brother of Meridian Magazine’s publishers Scot and Maurine Proctor – and the guy to whom I was engaged. A girls trio was always an anchor in Janie’s shows, used as both back-up and solo throughout the show.

We got good enough under Janie’s direction that, after these tours, we went to Hollywood to record and Bobby Engemann of the famous Lettermen, also one of Janie’s Kids, offered us an opportunity to record the voice-overs for the new Hanna-Barbera cartoon series Josie and the Pussycats. Naively, we decided to return to BYU for more performing opportunities under Janie’s direction! Looking back, we probably gave up a real career opportunity in the process, but we did complete those famous BYU “MRS” degrees, which was our main goal as Mormon girls anyway.

Highlights from Opportunities Janie Gave Us
While on that Expo 70-Orient Tour, we had some extraordinary experiences. We were with diplomats throughout the entire tour as our music was used to bring countries together during difficult war times.

I will never forget the night we stayed up till 3 a.m. after a show visiting with a group of young servicemen at Clark Air Base in the Philippines during the Cambodian crisis and the escalation of the war. That prevented the number of civilians on our tour from actually going into Viet Nam itself, but it was extraordinary to be in the middle and staying on the military bases, performing on aircraft carriers. That night we saw first-hand these brave young men who were getting ready to leave soon on a helicopter mission. I also saw the vulnerability in their eyes, knowing that some of them might not return. They clung on our words – the guys and girls on our tour – as their lifeline to home.

The next day we inquired as to how the helicopter mission had gone, and indeed some of them had not returned. How grateful I am for that ultimate sacrifice and the passion and conviction of servicemen and that I could experience what it was first-hand.

Young Ambassador Humor on Tour
On one occasion, we were very late arriving at a military base, so late the audience of servicemen had been waiting for several hours. We rushed in, and the guys laid our big costumes bags on the stage floor. In my haste I ran across the stage to get to the dressing room, not seeing the bags on the floor, and I stumbled over them and fell flat on my face. To my horror, I heard applause, cat calls, whistles and cheers. I looked up. The curtains were wide open, and I saw a sea of soldiers laughing at me. I did the only thing I could think of, collected myself, got up off the floor, and faced the audience and took a deep curtsey and then proceeded to the dressing room which incited another roaring applause.

Another time we were with diplomats in a swanky downtown Seoul, Korea hotel and it got late. With a curfew, we had to get to the taxi cue quickly, and it was packed as people all gathered to get off the streets and home before that bewitching hour. The taxis would pull up and like clock-work the people would pile in. Two cars pulled up and part of our group got in one, and we in the other. As they went down the road the driver turned around and said in very broken English, “I’m sorry but I’m not a taxi.” They were naturally surprised, especially when he said, “But I’m happy to take you wherever you need to go.” (Stupid Americans?)

Janie had such a sense of humor, and sometimes, especially on demand, she would perform a special number. It was typically “I’ve Been Everywhere” She could do it at such a fast tempo impeccably spitting out the patter it was a perfect display of her extraordinary natural talent and comedic flair.  At the end of every show, she would stand up from the piano, turn to the audience and characteristically lift her glasses up and down off her nose in acknowledgement of the cheers. That was Janie.

Performing on an aircraft carrier was a highlight. What I remember most is how scorching hot it was. The hottest day of my life, in fact. It was sheer heavy iron metal under the blazing sun in the middle of the Pacific inside that hold. No wind that day to breeze through the open sides of the hold.

We had a makeshift stage and hundreds of servicemen sitting on folding chairs. I thought we would faint dancing around in our fast-paced show. I don’t usually sweat, but we were dripping wet, thought our costumes would melt off of us, and our hair looked like we had been drenched in a rain storm.

That didn’t make much difference to the guys on the carrier. We sang a song from a Broadway show It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman called “You’ve Got Possibilities.” It was always a highlight, and the kind of variety number that Janie loved to insert in her shows. We would go out into the audience looking for that “superman” and then we brought him unawares onto the stage and during the song we ruffled him up a bit while he became part of our song.  Once we mistakenly ripped the shirt of the poor man as we pulled it out of his pants and another time, we mistakenly skewed the toupé on a man’s head as we messed with his hair!

This time, the guy we selected was a bit tipsy and as LeeAndra would say, “Whoa Nellie…watch out…!”  A drunk serviceman on an aircraft carrier on stage with three college girls singing to him…let me simply say, we spent most of our time during that song trying to keep HIS hands off US!!! And then when we were done, he wouldn’t leave the stage! We could hardly stop laughing after it was over.

Expo 70
While at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan we represented American colleges. We were housed in a student hostile. It was built to a native Asian sized-body. So the guys had to dip their heads down as they walked through the undersized portal-sahped door ways. Everything was little.  Miniature, sinks, counters, bathroom, everything small. We needed to check the time, so Leah Richards (Pitzak) called on the little phone and after she asked for the time, we heard her say, “Sir, I don’t speak Japanese. Could you just tell me the time?” Pause. “I don’t speak Japanese. What-time-is-it?” Another pause. “Sir, I can’t understand you. CLOCK…TIME…WHAT-TIME-IS-IT?” Still nothing.

Then after a pause, she said in a perfect Japanese accent, “Me no speeka Jah-pahn- ese.” Suddenly the person on the other end of the line gave her the time in English!

Apparently it was very important to the U.S. Government to send the most wholesome college group they could find to this military theater, where there was so much misinformation about the college protests, and very deflating to those who were fighting. We were back-to-back on a huge outdoor stage – a floating stage surrounded by beautiful fountains and water.

We sang another song from the Broadway show Half A Sixpence called “If I Had Money To Burn,” a big song and dance number in which we each had a prop-banjo. The lyrics went, “If I had money to burn, I’d buy me a banjo.” We couldn’t understand why the Japanese audiences would break into laugher when we sang those words until it was explained to us that the word for toilet in Japanese is benjo. They thought we were singing about buying a toilet!

Speaking of toilets, we were introduced to Japanese toilets way back then.  They were literally rectangular porcelain bowls on the floor of the stall and … yes, you had to squat.  (TMI…)

Korea was known for its synthetic wigs, and we couldn’t pass it up. All the girls went to buy one, and when the weather got too hot and humid, we just wore them for the shows. On one occasion the guys conspired during the “Mary Bee” square dance number and on the final button, when the girls jumped into their arms, the men each grabbed the wigs of their partner and pulled them off as their arms went out in the final pose.  The trio was spared because we were calling the dance in three-part harmony and got to watch the whole thing from the sidelines. We just cracked up.  Janie, not so much.  Well, she did laugh, but she got on us if we got out of hand on stage.

Janie had some quirks. She was always at the piano playing for us, and hardly ever glanced at the key board. Instead, she would sometimes call the show LIVE right from the piano bench, shouting stage directions at us if she saw something askew happening on stage. She was hysterical!

sergio-mendes-brasil-66_1Audiences of thousands gathered to watch our show on that floating stage at Expo 70 in Osaka, which was headlined by a top recording group, Sergio Mendez and Brasil 66, during the two weeks we were there. I was nuts over how gorgeous the lead singer was with her amazing long, blonde hair, and really fell in love with that samba music. (But I recall she was a bit stuck on herself as we conversed backstage.)

The stage was surrounded by water and featured a floating concrete stage upon which our drummer sat and played.  During one show, he got stuck out there and they couldn’t get him back in.

Mistaken Identity
A past-time of the locals was to bring along an autograph book and to collect signatures of people from around the world. One afternoon between shows, we were sightseeing on the fair grounds, and I signed a few of those books with my name and home town: “Cherilyn Bacon, Hollywood, California.”

Suddenly I felt the presence of a lot of people closing in around me. I looked up and indeed, I was surrounded by a mob of Japanese people, over whom I towered at nearly 5’8″ and especially stood out as the only blonde in the crowd, all wanting my autograph. A bit confused, someone explained to me that they assumed I was a movie star because I had signed “Hollywood.” I laughed, but I couldn’t mislead them for too long, and so I asked a translator to tell them that I really wasn’t a star. Remarkably, they wouldn’t believe it, so I signed a ton more autograph books before we went on our way!

A Soviet Moment
I had a life-changing, eye-opening moment with the Soviet students that were hosting the USSR pavilion.  We were curious.  The fair was overshadowed by the spectacular red-lit spire with the hammer and sickle on top and could be seen from everywhere.  We arranged for a VIP tour of the USSR exhibit and the young Soviets took us through and answered all our questions.

It was odd to me that when we walked in, everything was bigger than life and in full color.  A huge multi-screen presentation was on the multilevel wall depicting life in the USSR as one of glorious music and dance, happy faces and amazing culture.

We got to the literary exhibit and an original copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace was open in the protective glass case.  They knew we were Mormon and they said, “Tolstoy wrote about the Mormon church and said that if it lasted beyond the third or fourth generation, it would be the greatest power the world has ever known.”

I had never heard that before but I was impressed they would be so informed.  They had done some research before we arrived.  Apparently One of Brigham Young’s wives Suza Gates Young had sent Tolstoy a copy of The Book of Mormon.  I looked at the young guide, and said, “Well, he’s right.” (more or less sticking it to a communist atheist)

By the end of the exhibit, I couldn’t help myself.  I had to ask the piercing question any American might have asked during that Cold War, knowing that Communism removed all religious speech from the public square in the USSR.  It wasn’t often you could brush shoulders with a real live Communist from the Soviet Union.  “So, tell me,” I probed, “do you believe in God?”

He looked at me, paused and said simply, “We believe that god is in us – that we are the only god.”  He went on to explain that science was god and that they could believe what they could prove.

Again, I gregariously looked at him in the eye and said, “Well, I know there’s a God.”

That was my first encounter with Marxism, atheism and secular humanism and the worship of science to the exclusion of any higher power.  That was a defining moment, one I’ve never forgotten and that I remember every time religious liberty is attacked in the U.S.

We invited the Soviet guides to come to one of our shows.  We arranged the time and place and then we would take them on a tour of the US pavilion.  But they never came.

The US pavilion made me wonder who was doing the PR for the United States because our exhibit was almost negligible.  It was a low-lying, oblong-shaped, gray-domed edifice, like a super dome.  Inside the displays were colorless, black and white photographic displays of sadness and poverty in America and the coldness of technology.  The first manned-space capsule in which Alan Shepard circled the earth was interesting and all the technology of the future was fascinating.  But I remember thinking, How bleak and depressing this is.  Is this my country?  Who would want to portray this image to the world?

Those images and thoughts have been with me ever since as I have watched this nation in decline.  Someone in high places in the US “PR Department” deliberately decided to do great damage to our nation.

 

Sheratons 1990Full Circle on Janie’s Funeral Day
LeeAndra, Nancy and I have been lifelong friends, along with my roommate Leah.  Although Janie had brought us back together as original Young Ambassadors for a 20th year reunion show in 1990, we have always been close, and our harmony has stayed with us.  (Yes, that is me with the red hair second to the right in the gold  – those funky jackets I decorated – Nancy was about 8 months pregnant for that show.)

One song we sang everywhere we went at those church firesides on our tours was “Eternal Life” – lyrics by St. Francis of Assisi.

I never imagined that we would be singing that song at Janie Thompson’s memorial service someday.  When we learned of her passing and that there would be a special service in which any of her “kids” would be given an opportunity to speak or perform, and when I learned that LeeAndra was miraculously going to be in Utah on her funeral day (she’s usually on the road touring) and that Nancy was coming in from California too, I felt strongly that we should sing that song.

Some were saying we should do our showstopper “You’ve Got Possibilities,” and that was tempting because it was hilariously funny, but I just kept feeling that this was a sacred day, and we needed to honor Janie, the way she would want to be honored.  But we hadn’t sung it in over 40 years!  And we wouldn’t be together until the morning of the funeral.  Could we do it?  I had a prayer in my heart, and I felt assured and knew that Janie would be there with us.

At 10:30 on June 8th (the funeral started at 11:00) we were finally all together and walked outside the chapel and stood in our traditional circle in which we always rehearsed so we could watch each other.  A cappella, we started together and it just clicked.  It felt as if our 20-year old voices had somehow miraculously returned.  We adjusted a few rough spots, but I knew it – I know Janie was there helping us along.  And I knew we could do it because she wanted us to do it.

My BYU roommate, ever-beautiful and never-aging Young Ambassador dancer Leah Richards Pitzak was standing there with us, giving us such great encouragement and support, pointing her iPhone camera at us as we ran through the song.  We only got a quick rehearsal with the pianist, LeeAndra’s incredibly talented daughter Kendra Lowe who had just gotten off the plane from Italy and rushed from the airport (and ran out of gas on the way) to get there just in time.  It was a double-blessing to be singing for Janie and to be with three girls I love dearly and have for a lifetime.

Cherilyn Eagar LeeAndra Lowe Nancy SchultzThe Deseret News was at the service interviewing people, and unknown to us, our photo showed up on the front page singing that song.  We sang it for Janie, arm in arm, that day because the lyrics were what she taught us and what she lived:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not
So much seek
To be consoled, as to console,

To be understood, as to understand,
To be loved, as to love,
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning, that we are pardoned,
It is in dying, that we are born to Eternal Life.

It was the perfect song for that occasion.  She will be greatly missed, but her legacy will go on – forever. In fact, we always joked that we would someday reunite in the Great White Program Bureau/Young Ambassadors in the Sky.

Well, it’s not a joke now. I can imagine that Janie has not missed a beat, and that she’s already getting it organized, complete with a perky opener production number, a 50’s medley, some clever comedy sketches interspersed, an “Ah Sweet Mystery of LIfe” comedy dance pas de deux, a Broadway section, a military tribute with a Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy trio, and a crowning patriotic production finale with that Statue of Liberty rising center stage.

Oh, and don’t forget the encore. Front and center, we gathered at the edge of the stage to leave our last message to the audience:

“When there’s beauty all around, there is love at home.
There is joy in every sound, when there’s love at home….
Love at home, love at home.
Time doth softly, sweetly glide, when there’s love at home.

… And then …

“I am a child of God, and He has sent me here. Has given me an earthly home, with parents kind and dear. Lead me, guide me, walk beside me, help me find the way. Teach me all that I must do to live with Him some day.”

I personally can’t wait!

Appendix

The BYU Young Ambassadors has changed with the times over the years. Today it’s more of a musical theatre showcase, and the students actually get credit for being in the program. But it still carries that positive and wholesome message about life.

Here’s a glimpse of YA’s nearly 40 years after its founding.


  1. Bruce Hough - June 17, 2013

    Cherilyn,

    Great blog on Janie Thompson… I was the student director of the program bureau at Ricks College under her brother’s tutelage, John Thompson… also a wonderful human being and friend.

    Bruce

    • Cherilyn Eagar - June 17, 2013

      Hey, Bruce, thanks for sharing. It doesn’t surprise me that you were out there on stage – you are multi-talented and your kids are amazing!

  2. Kathy Smith - June 17, 2013

    In 1973, just a week after getting home from a summer abroad with American Field Service (AFS) in Germany, I started as a freshman at BYU and talked Mary Bee Jensen into letting me join the Folk Dance team.  I had been the only American at a folk dance festival that summer in Hungary, bearing the flag of my German hosts and wearing a German dance costume, among some 200 dancers from countries all around the world.  I still stay in contact with a boy I met in Hungary. That year, one of my roommates at BYU was a Young Ambassador.  Brings back such great memories!

    • Cherilyn Eagar - June 17, 2013

      Thanks for sharing, Kathy! I had no idea you were a Folk Dancer. We loved Mary Bee, and loved singing that song as the dancers performed the square dance in her name “The Mary Bee.”

  3. Thanks, I’ve been really enjoying hearing Janie’s “I’ve been everywhere again.
    And have listened many times now.
    Those Heavenly Choirs are sure getting some fine folks of late.
    Jay

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