Written and transcribed by Sarah Holtz
Our Volunteer of the Month for May is Jillian, who you might recognize from her weekly stint reading the News at Noon. I got the chance to talk with Jillian in Studio One and hear about her background in theater, her international family, and the many places she lived and worked before arriving in New Orleans.
- How long have you been reading for WRBH?
Well, it turns out I’ve been reading since the end of September last year and I didn’t realize that – it seemed like it was just a few months! It goes by quickly and it’s enjoyable.
- What made you start volunteering?
I saw the sign on Magazine Street, and that was the immediate draw in. I had first heard about reading for Radio for the Blind through a friend in Chicago who does that for Lighthouse up there, and I didn’t think much about it because we didn’t live here and I didn’t know such a thing existed where we did live. We’ve been for about four and a half years, and through a friend who reads for you as well, I thought maybe I could do this.
There was a gal at TWA I had worked with who was blind, and she was terrific, and had a special computer to do her job. In the bring-your-daughter-to-work day, I had brought my daughter and this lady made a big impression on her. So at one point in fourth grade she was to dress up and research a personality, and she chose Louis Braille. We got a little Braille stylus and after speaking to the woman at work, and my daughter became Louis Braille. The closest I’ve ever been to living with the blind was that interview with her, and finding out a little about the magazines and opportunities that exist for those with sight impairment.
- What has been your favorite thing that you’ve read on air?
I’m glad you asked me that. I read something called Abominable, which was an exciting mountaineering story. It’s actually a book, a whole novel, and I didn’t read the whole novel, just bits and snippets, but it reads well and it was exciting. The descriptions, the details, it opened up a world to me that I was familiar with at all, and I appreciate that.
- Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in New York City, in Manhattan, and I lived there until I was about eleven. I moved to Los Angeles, my mother remarried, and so I spent those junior high and high formative years in Los Angeles, and from there moved to Eugene and to Boston and back to New York, and then out to San Diego with some time in Europe in between, always with one purpose or another. Then I met my husband in New York, and we wound up in the Midwest, but this is my first Southern stay and I love New Orleans.
- What’s on your travel bucket list?
I would love to go to India and see the Taj Mahal. I would love to go to Africa and experience particularly South Africa and Table Mountain, and also to see the animals run free. That would be exciting to me. I’ve actually never seen the Grand Canyon; the closest I’ve come was seeing Waimea Canyon in Hawaii, which is a mini version. But basically I’m a city girl. I’m okay with going out there and exploring nature but I thrive on museums and group gatherings.
- What drew you to the French language?
I had the opportunity in high school, kind of a wild opportunity, to study French in Switzerland. I had been taking French just like many people do in school, and a friend of mine’s family sublet their house and were all going to Switzerland to go to school and I came home and said, “Mom, so-and-so’s family is subletting their house and they’re all moving to Switzerland, and how come we never do anything like that?” And she said, “I don’t know!”
And so we sat at dinner and she turned to my stepfather and she said, “Guess what so-and-so’s family is doing, and how come we never do anything like that?” And he said, “I don’t know! Why don’t we?”
He actually had a dual citizenship with Canada – we are sort of an international crew here – and he was a film and television director, so he checked with his agent, and yes he could get jobs in the UK, so they sublet the house, and they also looked into schools for me. I had been going to public school, but if they sublet the house and if he got a job over there that was serious to work on, then it would be like sending me to private school for six months and so then it was doable. And that’s what they did.
My French improved very much, in fact I won an award for most improved. I could barely answer the question what’s your name the first day. It was a complete immersion program, sort of three months to learn it – three months to lose it, but still I can get by a bit now.
- What was it like living in another country? Did you experience any culture shock?
Oh, definitely, and it was a girls’ school, so there were a lot of restrictions. It was fun and it was beautiful. I discovered yogurt, which wasn’t so popular back then here, and bread and cheese. There was other music, bands I wasn’t familiar with, although I do remember running into people who were trying to sell the poetry of Bob Dylan on the street in Europe — at that point he was already a star. That was in the early seventies.
- Internationalism has always been a big part of your family. What kind of influence did that have on your kids?
Well, they’ve moved away! I let them out of the cage and there they flew. But I’m so proud of them. They’re making their way in the world. They do everything in another culture and another language, and they’re comfortable out there. And the best thing is that they choose to come home and see us.
- What are some of your favorite books?
Well, I read short stories. I read international-oriented short stories. My mother was part of the Plato Group in Los Angeles, which is an adult education lifelong learning program through UCLA. They coordinate different classes that they run by themselves, and she had said that this was a very successful one. Since she is now here and looking to keep going with her intellectual stimulation, we asked the nursing home if we could do a short story class, and they said yes — if you help to lead it. So I’m involved with reading stories for that.
It’s good, it opens up other worlds, you get a flavor of different regions – India, Japan, China, South America, Africa – those are the areas that are covered. We don’t normally read so many stories from those areas. It gives ideas as to whom you might want to read more of.
- Do you have any recurring dreams?
No, I don’t. I had a recurring dream as a child when we moved from New York to Los Angeles. Pretty much the only time when dreams are memorable to me is from childhood. There was a safety spot, and reaching out to a friend who was on the other side underneath this car for some reason. We’d reach under this car and we could pull the other person to either Los Angeles or to New York and have an adventure there. That was the dream.
12. I wonder what it was like for you to transition your life from city to city at such a young age.
Well, my reaction to Los Angeles when we moved there was to see a house as opposed to an apartment. I was used to apartment living. They had rented a house the first year overlooking the San Fernando Valley and we came in at night, all the lights were twinkling. The only large structure directly across on other hill was Universal [Studios] and I started to cry because there were no skyscrapers. I didn’t know where I was, and I didn’t feel acclimated. Everyone was in “the business” from our group, so I went to school and someone pointed out a little boy across the yard and said, “He’s Pugsley from The Addams Family. A friend who was in my class had a party and her father was the voice of the robot in Lost in Space, and she wanted to be an actress and years later I was watching Hill Street Blues and she turned out to be Renko’s wife on it, so I knew she had made it.
13. Were you drawn to that world yourself?
Sure, absolutely. I was, and I did. I studied theater, and I have a BFA from Boston University, so I worked in Boston a little bit, and I worked in New York as an actor. I also worked in production: I did office management for “Timbuktu,” which was a Broadway show — that was my first job in New York. Then I did a lot of off-off-Broadway and did some industrials, but that was a long road, a couple of lifetimes ago.
That was for about seven years, but you have a day job unless you’re really successful. I worked in telecommunications for an investment-banking firm and I kept getting promoted – and I didn’t really want to be there! I met my husband through a film production at NYU – we were acting together – but he has changed his stripes and went into academia, and that’s what ultimately brought us here.
But both of us couldn’t be academics. I always had the sense that we’d both be looking for grants, and that it was insecure, so I kind of did the business route. In San Diego, I worked for an environmental health organization, and I coordinated a community education project on toxics in the home, in the workplace, and in the environment. In St. Louis, I worked for the airlines so we could get out of there, because his family is in Chile, and my family is in Los Angeles, and there we were isolated in St. Louis. St. Louis and New Orleans have a bit in common, with that Mississippi rolling along. I always think that St. Louis is looking forward to 1904, and I think that New Orleans is merely looking forward. They’re holding on to the strength of their history, but they’re reinventing themselves all the time, so I like it here better.
14. If you could interview anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
Well, I’ve heard it said that if somebody was stranded on a desert island, they’d want to have the complete works of Shakespeare. So he might be an interesting fellow to spend some time with, and answer a few questions.
Check out a recording of the interview below on our Soundcloud page. Our next Volunteer of the Month feature will be coming to you in June – stay tuned!