She was a drama queen in the best sense, regally robust and effortlessly effervescent, a tall, gregarious woman who did not so much demand attention as dance along with it.
Joan Kent taught theater arts and drama for 23 years – first at West Mesa High School beginning in 1970, then at the newly built Cibola High School in 1975 – but what she taught, who she was, what she meant to her students went far beyond the stage.
“We were Kent’s Kids and she was a teacher, mentor, counselor,” former student Kathy Wimmer said. “I called her my surrogate mother. She was the one you went to with your problems and for comfort, or to hear her tell you to suck it up. Many of her students say she changed their lives. Many say she saved their lives.”
Kent lost her life Aug. 11, three days after her 93rd birthday. A memorial in her honor and the official launching of a fundraiser for a scholarship in her name happens Oct. 9 at the theater on the Cibola campus that bears her name.
The theater, which Kent helped design and directed the first performances in, is so named thanks to her students, who pushed for that honor.
“And I’m not even dead yet,” she joked at the theater dedication in 1991.
Kent joked a lot like that, and her students were often in on the joke. Her full name was Joan Edith Rance Kent, and she quite famously and proudly went by her initials J.E.R.K.
“In addition to some of us being remembered as Kent’s Kids, we were also J.E.R.K.’s students,” Wimmer said.
Their little inside joke is even surreptitiously included in her obituary. She would have smiled at that, they think.
Then again, she was almost always smiling, toothy and wide, her head tossed back, her one good arm elegantly arching in dramatic gesture or jazz hand.
Few noticed her other arm, atrophied from a childhood bout of polio, though it remained an everlasting reminder of the tragedy side of a life blessed with comedy.
“She was a child of the Depression and of divorce, and she spent several years in the hospital with polio,” daughter Connie Kent Friedrichs said. “Her mother was a model, her sister was a model, but she was not given the same model looks. I suspect that’s where some of her dramatic flair came from.”
It was a way for her to be noticed.
Kent was 6 when her parents divorced, tossing her, her mother and sister from the family home that encompassed nearly a whole city block in Chicago and forcing Kent to be sent to her father to beg for money, Friedrichs said.
More tragedy came when her sister died at age 21 and Kent was left with the demoralizing thought that perhaps the wrong child had died. That, however, did not keep her down, and maybe that’s because, by then, she had learned to embrace happiness before it so easily slipped away.
“She was a rock,” Friedrichs said. “She had a joy for life. She never, ever was a ‘poor me’ person.”
She graduated from college with degrees in English and chemistry, married traveling salesman and biggest fan Hal Kent, and raised their three children in Chicago, immersing them in the arts, taking them to New York to attend the theater and filling their home with opera radio broadcasts.
In 1964, the Kents moved to Corrales, Friedrich’s mother trading her flamboyant gloves and heels for jeans and boots. When her children were older, she went back to school, obtaining a master’s degree in education at the University of New Mexico, and finding the footlights to what became a fabulous and fulfilling career.
“Her theater classes were not just ‘Here’s a play, learn your lines,’ ” Wimmer said. “She helped you find the realness of the work. When she cast you in a play, she’d say ‘You’re mine now.’ She demanded our best, our all. And she’d let you know when she thought you hadn’t done your best, which could be crushing. But you wanted to be good for her.”
And they were good – so good that, among the accolades her students garnered over the year, was being invited to perform in the 1988 Great Canadian Theatre Festival.
Kent was known for taking classes to the theater and opera, and to places relevant to the plays they were performing. For “Under the Sycamore Tree,” which involves an ant colony, she took her students to the dwellings carved into the earth at Bandelier National Monument. For “Riders to the Sea,” she steeped her students in Irish music and culture. For “Rhinoceros,” it was a trip to the zoo.
Kent didn’t just teach her students how to act on stage; she taught them how to be themselves in life.
“She accepted me as I was, am and want to be,” former student Erin Hulse wrote in a Facebook tribute.
Her students sent her Mother’s Day cards and celebrated her birthdays. Friedrichs recalled the huge number of them who gathered for Kent’s 80th soiree in 2008.
“It was bumper to bumper, so many students from over the years there,” she said. “Her kids were everything to her, and my brothers and I always knew we were sharing her.”
For her 90th birthday, former student Michael King flew her to Nashville, Tennessee, to dine at his restaurant, Monell’s at the Manor, and invited her friends, family and other students. It was a regal affair, Kent wearing a tiara, arriving in a Rolls Royce, walking through a crowd bestowing her with nine separate bouquets of 10 roses, one for each decade of her life.
It was a celebration fit for a drama queen. And she loved it.
Though she has left this earthly stage, her students love her still.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.