Miss Jo
A tribute to Johanna Boomsma '48
By Phil de Haan '84

There's a section in Johanna (Jo) Boomsma's obituary in the Grand Rapids Press that many people might pass by without a rearward glance. It notes that Jo graduated Wheatfield High School in 1938 and Calvin College in 1948. A 10-year gap between high school and college graduation dates is unusual, to say the least. But Jo Boomsma was an unusual lady, to say the least.

It took 10 years for her to finish Calvin because she'd go to school for a year, run out of money and then have to work for a year (or two) to save enough money for another year of school. She repeated that cycle several times between 1938 and 1948, bound and determined to get a Calvin degree.

Remember she graduated from high school in 1938, toward the end of the Great Depression and just three years prior to the U.S. entry into World War II. Money was tight. And college was a luxury most could not afford. But for Miss Jo — as she later became known by the women and kids of Kentucky she helped for so many years — college was a necessity she couldn't afford to miss.

Years after she graduated Calvin — 41 years to be precise — I was fortunate enough to spend a week in the spring of 1989 working with a group of Calvin students at Christian Appalachian Homes in Inez, Kentucky. Miss Jo had started the place from scratch and built it into a bustling place, filled with women and children from the nearby towns and "hollers," women who had been abused and fled to seek the safety and shelter they knew they would find at CAH. Miss Jo was there to help them. And it was there that our Calvin group heard Miss Jo's spellbinding life story one evening. I'll never forget it.

That night in Inez she recalled her arduous journey through Calvin. But it was without bitterness that she remembered taking a decade to make a four-year trip. "Every year that I worked," she said, "I had a different job. I learned something else. You name it and I've done it. It all prepared me for this work." That was Miss Jo, able to look back on her life and see the purpose for what at the time may have seemed purposeless, able to see, without a doubt, the Lord's hand in her life.

It was a life that had more than its shares of bumps and bruises. When we were with her, in '89, she was almost 70 and already had battled cancer and been through 13 surgeries. As a young woman she suffered through a three-year depression. She never married after a young man she had been seriously dating and hoped to marry left her for another when she was in her early 20s. Yet through all that she persevered.

"Persistence is a key down here or anywhere," she told us back then. "Don't give up when you have failure. I don't think you ever really fail if you're right with the Lord. Patience, perspective and priorities are also important words that I live by. But it takes faith. I pray for faith and love."

In 1991 Miss Jo was honored by Calvin with the Alumni Association's Distinguished Alumni Award, receiving the award at Commencement that year with the other 1991 recipient, businessman Edsko Hekman (a 1935 Calvin graduate who also has since passed away). Hekman had had an impressive career since graduating from Calvin and had been a true example of philanthropy in action. His words at the 1991 Commencement ceremony were, I thought, memorable. When he received his award he looked at Miss Jo and said simply: "This lady is the Mother Theresa of the Christian Reformed Church."

That line wasn't in any obits I read for Miss Jo. But it could have been. It captured her spirit in a special way. Well-said, Mr. Hekman. Well-lived, Miss Jo.