Jerry was my biggest fan, although his idea of a high compliment was, 'Her voice is so big it hurts my ears!' – Dr. Jean Wozencraft-Ornellas
No matter how ill-fated your life, all it takes is one person to turn it around.
Dr. Jean Wozencraft-Ornellas, an ENMU music professor and opera singer, met her life-changer 31 years ago on a date arranged by mutual friends. They became an instant, devoted couple until Jerry Ornellas' sudden death in 2008 from cerebral hemorrhaging. He was 72. They met at the end of Jean's first year at ENMU 31 years ago when she came on a one-year contract.
"I was living in apartment number 3 in a building with four apartments," Jean said. "I had noticed this gorgeous guy who moved into number 1. One day, as I was coming home from a particularly bad day – where I had not been taken seriously in a meeting by several 'older' faculty – I ran into Jerry. He asked me if I was a student at ENMU, and I rather curtly said, 'No! I am a professor!' So that ended our conversation – but not me watching him as he passed my apartment door on his way to the trash. Funny, I noticed how well his white pants fit, but did not notice the cast on his foot."
In the meantime, Jean met a couple in apartment number 4 who were in Portales as relief anesthesiologists at the hospital. They invited her to dinner one night, planning to match her up with Jerry, whom she had met at the laundry. Since Jean and Jerry's apartments were small, they met in apartment number 4 for cocktails, and were then going out to dinner.
"I was a few minutes late, and entered to find that there were a couple of discussions in progress having to do with gory injuries related to football and rodeo," Jean said. "Someone said, 'Come on in and join a conversation!' I jokingly said, 'I don't know which to join. Sounds like it takes a pea brain to do either!'
"Jerry had done both in his earlier years – so he said to people that he had to marry me because the first time we met I thought he was an idiot and the second time we met I called him a pea brain. That was our first date and from then on we were a committed couple."
Jean says Jerry was "always a gentleman. He always opened the car door for me and was very protective of me. Boy, you did not want to hurt my feelings, because Jerry was ready to take on anyone who did."
Jean loved Jerry's kindness and sense of humor. She remembers one evening they went to a party related to the university and, at some point, she realized she had lost track of him. She found him in a corner at a table sitting with a little elderly lady with whom he was flirting outrageously, and who was thrilled with his attention.
As she approached, he said, "Shhh! Here comes my girlfriend! We better be good."
Jean says Jerry could never see a stray – human or animal – that he did not take under his wing. One of the VP's in the firm for whom he worked called him a mother hen because he was always taking people under his wing and mentoring them. He considered their success his and reveled at seeing them rise in the company.
Jean says Jerry spoiled her rotten, including gutting her wardrobe containing clothes she had made for myself as far back as high school, and began to dress her in "all sorts of bright colors and wonderful outfits. He never thought I had enough gold and was always bringing me little things from the gold souks (open-air marketplaces) in the Middle East. I had to brow-beat him into getting new clothes for himself, though."
They both came into the relationship with baggage from other relationships.
"One of the things that we had to do was learn how to fight – what buttons should not be pushed, and how to let go of our hurt from the past and realize that we were now with new people who had different motivations," Jean said.
"I think the moment I realized how deeply I was in love with him was one time when we had a fight about something, and he took off for Amarillo by himself. I was so hurt, and was sitting on the couch several hours later nursing my self-pity when he walked in the door. He stopped and put down our little dog that he had taken with him and said 'I feel like a bucket of A**holes.'
"Not just one – a whole bucket! How could I not love him? A man who could apologize with such aplomb! We apologized to each other, hugged, got in the car and drove back to Amarillo for an RV show with our dog."
Jean says she has a tendency to avoid fights – to walk away if she can. Her father taught her that no one was ever totally right, and that she needed to find something to apologize for even if she did not think she was wrong.
"I would write an apology note to Jerry, usually finding more than my share of blame in a fight," she said. "Although it was certainly not my intention, he told me he hated those notes, because what they really meant was that he was being the bucket. He used to tell people that he had to be good, or I would write him a note. But that is what I so loved about him; he was a humble man who wasn't afraid to tell a joke on himself."
Because of Jean's singing career and Jerry's overseas work as a construction supervisor, they were often apart. After seven years, they decided to get married that day in Portales' Southside Church of Christ.
"Jerry and I spent a lot of time apart, between his work overseas for an international construction firm, and my travel for singing," Jean said. "We had already bought a house together, and after seven years we were clearly going to be together long-term, but had not yet been able to find a time when we were both in the same country long enough to plan a wedding.
"Jerry was working on the reconstruction of Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion and came home on R and R one time and announced we needed to get married. He only had 10 days at home, but I quickly got us down to the courthouse for a license, and made an appointment with the judge.
"Our appointment was at 2:30 on Friday afternoon, November the 1st. We arrived at the courthouse a little early, and two other couples were there. We were greeted by a very embarrassed clerk, who told us that it was the first day of hunting season, and both judges had left for hunting trips about which she had not known. Since Jerry had to leave on Sunday, we called our good friend Frank Poynor and asked if he would be willing to marry us.
"He said, 'Sure! Do you have a date in mind?' He barely hesitated when we said, 'Today,' and he said, 'Let me see what I can do.' He closed the shop a little early and met us at the Southside Church of Christ, and said we had to be out in an hour because they were having a Halloween party that evening.
"Our witnesses were two students of mine; she was nine months pregnant and had just been putting dinner on the stove when I called and asked if they would be witnesses. I promised them dinner at the Cattle Baron in exchange.
"As Frank was finishing up his advice by telling us how important it was to keep a sense of humor in a marriage, a man in a white rabbit costume walked through the back of the Sanctuary. Talk about going down the rabbit hole!"
They never officially honeymooned, but since they were so often at opposite ends of the planet, "Every time we were together was a honeymoon," Jean said. "We made the most of our together times, and spent innumerable hours on the phone in order to keep our relationship strong. Together we visited Chile, Venezuela, Peru, Greece, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia."
Jean says Jerry could do anything. "He used to talk himself down because he did not have a lot of college education, but he was one of the smartest and wisest men I ever knew. He knew the mechanics of just about anything.
"As a Site Manager, he was known for being a man who could come in and turn a job around. If it was behind schedule and over budget he could get it going and bring it in on or before schedule and with budget to spare. He was loved by the men who worked for him. He absolutely hated to see anyone treated unfairly.
"But I think the thing that impressed me most was that he knew people. He was so accurate in evaluating them from the first time he met them. And he was always trying to help people and animals."
Jean says Jerry was forever adopting animals. In Kuwait he adopted a six-foot-long lizard for which he smuggled boiled eggs out of the commissary. In Indonesia it was a cat named Uting (which means "cat" in Bahasa.) In Chicago it was a squirrel that would chase him down and yell nasty things at him if he did not leave it peanuts from Portales.
"He was artistic; his eye for color was amazing," Jean said. "He could sing. One of his favorite childhood memories was of singing 'High Noon' in a talent show, and he loved to sing with our Karaoke machine. Although he did not believe that he had a good voice, I loved to listen to him."
Jerry brought a world of speed and adventure into Jean's world: bungee-jumping, stock cars, water sports, airplanes ...
According to Jean, "Jerry was adventurous; very little scared him. He went bungee-jumping in New Zealand, but did not tell me beforehand because he thought I would tell him 'No.' He loved anything to do with speed; he raced stock cars when he was younger, and taught me how to race a jet boat and water ski."
Their hobbies included anything they could do together, anything with motors or speed, anything with animals, anything with nature. And chick flicks. His favorite movie was "Somewhere in Time."
Jean says the construction world was not entirely new to her, as she had worked with her dad renovating their house and in the scene shops at several theaters.
"I had not been around a lot of large construction people," she said, "although I jokingly called him my 'big, macho construction worker.' But the world of speed and adventure was completely new, and I found I loved it."
Jerry took Jean, son Greg Poe-Ornellas and daughter Christine Czemske-Ornellas deep-sea fishing and scuba diving.
Greg is a truck driver and volunteers with a search and rescue group in California.
Chris, a former ENMU employee in the early 90s who is remembered for her compassionate nature, now works at the University of Connecticut and volunteers with a horse rescue group.
Jerry and Jean informally adopted Chris from a bad home situation in Chicago when they first met her when she was 18. Jerry got to know her after hiring her for office work on a construction project.
"She and I have been the best of friends ever since, Jean said. "We couldn't have loved her more if she were our own. She and Jerry were very much alike. She is an animal whisperer in every sense, and loves nature and adventure like we do.
"Greg is the spitting image of his father – even down to their sense of humor. He is still my son and friend. I joke that I did it right; I had my children long after they were done with diapers and adolescence."
Jerry learned to love fine arts, including opera, from Jean
"Jerry had never been to an opera and, although it was a world that was completely foreign to him, he was willing to give it a go," Jean said. "He was my biggest fan, although his idea of a high compliment was, 'Her voice is so big it hurts my ears!' He would sit through any of my performances, and bring people to them, and would come to anything my students did if he was in town."
Jean remembers many other memorable experiences with Jerry.
They included "hashing" in Indonesia (a fun running experience that involved false trails, being out in the middle of the jungle, and a "teeny bit of drinking after").
On one hash they got lost and ended up slipping down hillsides, floating a river, and finally finding their group after two hours.
"Actually, several memorable trips involved getting lost and having the time of our lives," Jean said.
"We went to Canaima, Venezuela, to see Angel Falls – and about 30 other falls. That involved getting very wet, very muddy, very tired and very thrilled. We loved to camp, preferably where there were no other people. Death Valley camping was certainly memorable.
"We loved to scuba dive, and in New Zealand he took me and Chris deep-sea fishing and scuba diving. I caught the only fish – about a four-foot-long kingfish, using flying fish for bait. Then we did a little diving in a location where, due to an earthquake the next week, some divers found a major vein of gold.
"And then there was just sitting out at night, talking and counting satellites in the sky – something he learned to do in Iraq. We shared that activity with a lot of good friends and I still do it today."
Jean says Jerry totally changed the world as she knew it.
She had hoped to travel, but never expected to see as many places or as much nature as she did.
"I had pretty much been a city girl, although I knew I wanted to live in a small town," Jean said. "But with Jerry I got to go camping for the first time and loved it. Then we went to so many less-than-developed regions, and I got to meet so many different people, learn new cultures and languages, and experience so many cuisines and traditions.
"Perhaps more than that, I had pretty low self-confidence when I met Jerry, and he made me feel valued and confident. He also helped me to take things more easily. His mantra was that I did not have to stress about people who were attacking me or treating me poorly because he truly believed that 'what goes around, comes around.'
"And he was right. Several times I have been, or have seen people treated unfairly and, in the end, the person who treated them that way ended up lying in an unhappy bed that they had made for themselves."
Losing Jerry was the kind of shock that Jean admits she will never fully recover from.
Although he was 21 years older, given his family tendency to live long lives, she thought she had a lot more time with him.
"He was still so active," Jean said. "He tried four times to retire and always found a way to go back to work because he got so bored. I carry with me so many memories of laughter and love. Most importantly, I carry the lesson from him about how to find peace even when things are rocky at work, etc. He made me a more confident person and in many ways a better person. His kindness to others was a model for me."
Despite losing the love of her life, Jean says she is still achieving her dreams every day in her job.
"I absolutely love teaching, and seeing my students reach out and grab stars and follow their dreams. I hope that my epitaph can read, 'She did her best.'
"I would love to see Jerry again, and my father. I suspect that, if there is something like a heaven, they are both up there playing pranks on people, and adopting every stray they find. I know he has come back to play pranks on me – and comforted me in the first months after he died.
"I have no fear of death, because I do not fear hell or damnation or anything like that. I believe that there is something that continues to exist after life – call it a spirit or soul or whatever you like. And I look forward to the next adventure."
"Perhaps it is exploring other solar systems, or returning to Earth in another life form."