Long-Planned Memorial Service for Geneseo’s John VanDeWoestyne to be July 31st
I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you
(“For Good,” from “Wicked,” by Stephen Schwartz)
The relentless, long Covid pandemic was difficult enough for most people to endure, but it hit Geneseo’s Judy VanDeWoestyne especially hard.
She lost the love of her life – her 66-year-old husband John – early on, March 25, 2020. Her family had a small funeral March 31 at Vandemore Funeral Home, but Judy and her daughters Emily and Shay never had a proper memorial service, to share with family and friends the many, many ways that John impacted the Quad-Cities community. Until this month.
On Saturday, July 31, at 1:30 p.m., the public is invited to the Geneseo Performing Arts Center (at Geneseo High School, 700 N. State St.) Reverend Melva England (who led the 2020 funeral) will officiate. A memorial visitation will be held from noon — 1 p.m. prior to the memorial service. The Center seats more than 800, which will allow room for those who may prefer to social distance.
A time for fellowship and refreshments will follow the memorial service in the Geneseo High School Concert Hall foyer. Memorials may be directed to Richmond Hill Players, Quad City Music Guild, or Mayo Clinic.
Originally, Judy hoped to have a public memorial on the first anniversary of his death, but conditions with Covid still weren’t good, so she put it off until now.
“I know it’s a long time to wait and we definitely still felt like we needed more closure,” she said recently. “In talking to some of John’s friends, I think they need it to say some things that people have said. They will have this opportunity for them to say goodbye.”
John was born Nov. 18, 1953, the son of Walter and Veva (Welch) VanDeWoestyne, in Geneseo. He graduated from Atkinson High School and married Judy E. Burmeister on April 7, 1990, in Davenport. It was his second marriage and her first, at age 30.
They met two years prior, in summer 1988, when they were both in Music Guild’s “Sweeney Todd” – John played Judge Turpin and Judy was in the ensemble.
He surprised Judy when he asked her to marry him, July 29, 1989 at Moline’s Prospect Park theater (Music Guild’s home), after a nice dinner out. “And we went to behind the theater and he asked me on the hill behind the theater,” she recalled. He didn’t have an engagement ring, but later surprised her again by leaving the ring under a spotlight in her condo for her to find.
Judy and John were involved in a handful of other shows together – including “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” at Music Guild (he was a federal marshal and she played a waitress); “Don’t Tell Mother” at Richmond Hill (he directed and she did props), and “Oliver” at Music Guild, where he played Fagin and she was in the chorus, and had to fall into a coffin in one scene, when she was pregnant with Emily.
“We always say that for Emily, that was her first musical,” Judy said, adding all four of them were later in Guild’s “Fiddler on the Roof” together (2005), when John played the leading man, Tevye; Judy was a mama, Emily was a daughter and Shay worked backstage. “That was really special that we were all working together on that show,” she said.
His love of music and theater from a young age led him to performing and participating as a musician, as well as a leader with the Knights Drum and Bugle Corps. John performed with just about every theater in the Q-C area, but was most closely associated with Richmond Hill Players in Geneseo, working many years as its board president and he served as business manager.
He was instrumental in directing and participating in more than 100 productions at the Barn Theatre, and was affectionately known as “Mr. Richmond Hill.” John enjoyed singing with the Pleasant Valley Men, was a member of the Geneseo Rotary Club and Grace United Methodist Church. He and Judy enjoyed their time spent with their dinner club and those times with their friends. He participated in a weekly Bible study on Wednesdays and he loved playing poker with his buddies.
It was hard to be apart so often when John was busy with all his shows, Judy said.
“It was always one of the things that I felt he was very fortunate to have married me,” she said. “I had done theater for many years before we got married and started having a family. I understood the commitment that it takes, and I mean, yeah, I was always kind of relieved when he finished his show because then I got that time.
“I understood his need to perform, or to direct. He did so much for Richmond Hill. Sure, he was quite often busy with stuff for Richmond Hill,” Judy said. “In fact, as we did remodeling projects on the house, sometimes he would be like, I don’t like to paint and then he says, well I’m not gonna be able to work on it today ‘cause we’re painting at Richmond Hill.”
John was employed by the City of Geneseo for 34 years, retiring as Public Works Director in 2009. Judy retired from her job at MidAmerican Energy in November 2019, at 61, so they only had four months together before John’s death.
“I did kind of retire early because he had a lot of health issues, I wasn’t sure how long I was going to have with him,” she said. “Now we were both planning to stay in the house that we lived in for another 10 years. So we certainly weren’t thinking it was going to be that thing. And then, you know, that makes you think — well, I worked overtime. I missed all that time with John. Why did I do that?”
Battling health issues
John had wrestled some serious health issues in the few years before his death, including being taken to the emergency room for trouble breathing, Judy said. They discovered an aneurysm on his aorta, and John had to have experimental surgery in 2017 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He ended up losing his voice for most of 2018, because they think that surgery had damaged his vocal cords, Judy said. John had vocal cord surgery in December 2018, to restore his voice.
“It was very difficult for him and he took Richmond Hill reservations right here in our home,” she said. “And he couldn’t communicate over the phone. He could kind of gasp, or kind of whisper enough for me to understand him. You know, making appointments, he had to totally rely on me for things, for everything. And that was also was very frustrating for him, to not be able to just take care of things himself.”
John’s condition seemed to be normal after positive follow-up tests in 2019, Judy said. His last productions were directing RHP’s “Doublewide, Texas Christmas” in November 2019, and playing Kris Kringle/Santa Claus in Spotlight Theatre’s “Miracle on 34th Street” in December 2019. One day, he said out of the blue, “One of these mornings, I’m going to be gone, and that’s exactly what happened,” Judy recalled. “I don’t know why he said that; I didn’t really like hearing it.” The night John passed away, he fell asleep in his recliner in the living room, with his phone in his hand. “I was upstairs in bed and came down and found him. And he actually had his cell phone in his hand, and I thought, oh man, was he trying to call me?” Judy recalled. “I looked at his cell phone and it looked like he had been just looking at it. “He fell asleep down there, which that was not unusual for him to be,” she said, noting the doctor noted the cause of death as related to his heart aneurysm. John also had been taking medication for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
They planned the funeral for March 31, 2020, the day after Shay’s 26th birthday.
“So the worst thing about that was picking and choosing who to invite to the funeral,” Judy said of limiting it to immediate family. “As it turned out, there were a lot of family members who either had somebody with health conditions that couldn’t come or since returning from being snowbirds, they were in quarantine,” she said. “It all turned out okay. And the service was very nice, Pastor Melva England, and her husband Mark was also a pastor, officiated at it.” They used pre-recorded music during the service – including “On the Street Where You Live” from “My Fair Lady” (which John used as an audition piece), “How Great Thou Art,” “The Lord’s Prayer,” and to end, “For Good” from the musical “Wicked,” a favorite of both Judy and John. “That was an especially appropriate for John, because he did change a lot of people, but I mean, especially me,” Judy said. “I mean, I know I was better for having known him.”
“Wicked” is a favorite show for Judy — she’s seen it five times in Chicago (John saw it twice with her). The first time, they went with their daughters around 2006.
Theater and music were also a big part of a cherished 25th anniversary trip to New York City in early April 2015. John and Judy saw five Broadway shows — Chita Rivera in “The Visit,” Kristin Chenoweth in “On the Twentieth Century,” Helen Mirren in “The Audience,” “Gentleman’s Guide to Murder,” and “Disney’s Aladdin” – plus the Metropolitan Opera. One of John’s Drum and Bugle Corps friends played trumpet for the opera and gave them a backstage tour afterward.
“As usual, John had a surprise element,” Judy said of the trip. “The Friday evening, he didn’t tell me what the plans were. He hired a limo, and we took a tour of Central Park in the limo, stopped at Tavern on the Green, and then we went to a Greek restaurant in Chelsea.”
John gave her a dozen white roses and then the limo went on to Madison Square Garden and asked Judy what she thought they’d see. He replied, “I thought we’d go to a Knicks game,” and “I said, ‘Oh? How romantic,” she recalled. “It was not a Knicks game; it was Billy Joel. What a surprise.”
“Billy Joel played there once a month, and it just turned out that it was during the time we were going to be there. So John got tickets,” Judy said. “So it was a huge surprise. He really got me.”
John’s unexpected death was also especially hard since 2020 was their 30th anniversary and they didn’t get to celebrate together, and Judy couldn’t meet with many friends in person. Her daughters live together in Davenport.
“I feel very fortunate to have a supportive family and lots of wonderful friends that were very supportive,” Judy said. “They were in regular contact with me and there was a period of time, there were things starting to open up again a little bit. I did get together with some of my friends, like the dinner club lady. We had a few Zoom cocktail hours to have time together.”
One of her friends later in the year came to Judy’s house to visit. “She was wearing gloves and wearing a mask and, we would be giving the air hug from across the room and I was just kind of following her at a distance to the door and then she turned around and said, ‘I don’t care’ and she gave me a big hug.”
A special Irish blessing
When the March 31 funeral procession went past the Richmond Hill theater, dozens of people stood outside to pay their respects.
“It was unexpected,” Judy said. “I was totally surprised…And I just thought well, that’s appropriate, you know. I ended up thinking of it later as his final standing ovation. It was very special.”
That was organized by Jennifer Kingry, another longtime RHP veteran and friend of John.
“John’s passing happened so suddenly and right at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, only four days after the state went into lockdown, I think,” she said Sunday. “There was so much uncertainty at that point as to what kind of gathering was safe to have, if any. We only knew the funeral itself would be limited to close family members, but, of course, John had a vast and varied theater family, too.
“Somewhere — on Facebook maybe, or perhaps the New York Times online — I saw a video shot on a cellphone around that time from within a funeral procession in Ireland. A woman had passed in this small village, and her friends and neighbors parked along the route from the church to the cemetery, standing beside their cars as the hearse came by. That’s where the idea came from.
“I called the funeral home (Vandemore’s in Geneseo) to confirm their route, and they mentioned they planned to take a turn up by the Barn,” Kingry said by e-mail. “So that became a natural staging spot. The Irish story mentioned that they had circulated the word on Facebook, which was something I deliberately tried to avoid. It may sound silly now, but I was trying to keep it kind of on the quiet.
“It was less about trying to ‘surprise’ Judy and the family than it was about not disappointing them. The second you announce something on Facebook, it becomes public knowledge. Perhaps that might have ensured a bigger gathering, but, in those early, early days of the pandemic, who knew what the response would be — what if only a dozen showed up? Better a dozen that are a surprise than a dozen that are a letdown.
“So I tried to keep it on the down-low and reached out to people by email,” Kingry said, noting she administer RHP’s email platform, so it was easy to pull addresses, then add additional people who either knew John well or had worked on shows with him during the last 15 years or so. “I had fewer contacts at Music Guild, but I reached out to those I had, as well as at some other theaters.
“Altogether, I sent messages out to maybe 160 people or so, asking everyone to pass it along to anyone else they thought might want to be there,” she said. “We think of everyone being sent home from work during the lockdown, but I had messages from people who actually had more demands placed on them at work then, folks who wanted to be there but couldn’t get away.
“It was a raw, blustery March day, and there were some people down with ordinary colds and flu who couldn’t risk exposure to the weather, much less possible Covid contact,” she said. “There were many who wanted to be there who just couldn’t be, but it was heartening to see the familiar faces of those who did make it.”
There was one last funny bit of business that felt very “like John,” Kingry noted. “Somehow, in speaking with the people at the funeral home, I came away with the idea that the funeral procession would be approaching from the east, coming up the hill. So we gathered at the top, with some folks following the streaming funeral service on their phone. Once we knew that was over, folks got out of their cars and stood by, everyone looking down the hill for the arrival of the cortege,” she said.
“We were all looking in the wrong direction when the funeral car suddenly arrived from the west, effectively pulling up behind us. I liked to think of it as John making one last grand entrance, taking everyone by surprise!”
At the upcoming July 31 service, there will be memories shared from family and friends, a former Geneseo city administrator, someone from Drum and Bugle Corps, Jonathan Grafft from Richmond Hill, photos from the Drum Corps with music, photos from family, theater and dinner club set to music (“Smile” by Charlie Chaplin), and closing again with “For Good” sung by Music Guild’s Jenny Winn and Christina Myatt.
An unimaginable loss
The day after John’s death, Kingry (a lighting designer and director) fondly recalled that during 2014’s “The Odd Couple” — directed by Mike Skiles, with John playing Oscar Madison (one of his “bucket list” roles) — her favorite moment each night came when Oscar answered the phone in his apartment during the weekly poker game with the guys. “He turns away from them and embarrassedly mutters a few endearments into the phone, as though he has a secret sweetheart on the line,” Kingry recalled. “Then he turns back to the table and calls, ‘Hey, Murray, it’s your wife!’ It’s classic Neil Simon, always gets a big laugh. But what hit me, every time, was the big, warm-but-mischievous smile that John beamed as his friend comes to take the phone. It did more to sell the notion of Oscar Madison as a slob with a heart of gold and a guy who loves his friends then all of Simon’s one-liners put together.
“John was so good at smiling with his eyes. Well, for that matter, he could play anything with his eyes – happiness, sadness, pensiveness, tenderness,” she said. “I expect people tend to remember the big moments the most, and John certainly knew how to play to the back of the house, but it’s those little moments with his eyes I cherish most.”
The night of his death, Kingry went up to the barn, “sat in the audience by myself and cried my heart out,” she recalled then. “It just feels impossible to imagine the place without John; I kept expecting to hear his voice down the hall or to see him walk in, which happened so often when I was working out there on my own.
“I found myself wondering if anything I ever do there in the future will ever mean quite as much to me, without him there – it meant so very much to earn a word of approval or a thumbs-up from him,” she said. “I cannot even begin to imagine the loss his family is feeling, and my heart breaks for them.
“No doubt, Richmond Hill Players will carry on, but all of us who were lucky enough to know John and work with him are broken-hearted,” Kingry said. “The barn will always seem just a little smaller, a little dimmer, and a little less filled with laughter without John.”
Its first post-pandemic show will open Aug. 5 (directed by Kingry), with John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar.”
It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend…
I do believe I have been changed for the better
And because I knew you
Because I knew you
Because I knew you
I have been changed
(“For Good,” from “Wicked”)