Al: Jeannette, I would like to get a little history
about you. Are you from Chicago?
Al: What was your family name?
Jeannette: Lema. My older sister was born there, and then they moved back to Tennessee where my dad was from originally. I was born in Cincinnati. My dad went there because that's where the jobs were. He worked for General Motors and was there for thirty years. I have lost both my parents over the last few years, almost back to back. I am certain that those types of things happening in one's life can also contribute to ones path or journey. You know, when deaths occur you look at mortality, but even more so, you start to look at why you are the person that you are. When I look in the mirror, I see so much of my parents and everything that they brought into my life coming through to me now. I remember when I was a kid, my dad wouldn't be there at Thanksgiving dinner on time. He was out giving baskets of food to the St. Vincent DePaul Society.
My mother was the only Portuguese in that small town-probably within the state. She had to deal with a lot of prejudices in her lifetime. Just having a Portuguese accent resulted in my getting into fights at school over my mom. I tried to protect her; they would call her names. The town was very redneck.
Al: What was the name of the town?
Al: But you see, those types of negative experiences
can make you who you are. You are more tolerant than many because of those
experiences in Bethel. You can empathize with hurt because you know what it
Al: I tell my college classes about the movie, The Great Imposter, with Tony Curtis. He is leaving a monastery after being kicked out by the abbot. The kindly cleric says to Curtis that it is from the bad things that we learn the most-not from our successes.
I would like to revisit the racism issue if I might.. I thought when you told me about your mother being Portuguese in Tennessee, that she would have had cultural shock-not been the subject of racism.
Jeannette: During the later years, yes, she felt a little isolated culturally. However, like many people during that time that we came to the States right after the war, she tries to be American. She just wanted to learn English and how to be an American. Because of this, she tended to forget her culture.
Al: Do you know any Portuguese?
Al: Did you see other forms of racism while living in Bethel?
Jeannette: There was only one black family in the town. I went to high school with the only black kid in the school. We called him "Frenchie." He was a light-skinned, and he was also a drum major in the band. Bethel was an incredible redneck town. They burned a cross in his front yard, and within a month, he was gone.
All of the girls thought he was great. He knew how to twirl a baton better than anybody that we knew, so he got a lot of attention. Ohio is considered a Midwestern state, but if you live in a place like Bethel that was right across the river from Kentucky, it was really a prejudiced place.
My father worked at General Motors, and all the guys he worked with on the line were African Americans. They would come over to our house, or we would go to see them in the city. I never understood the differences between blacks and whites. It infuriated me to see people treated less than they deserved because of the color of their skin.
It's amazing really, how different regions can be. I came to Chicago the first time in 1980. When I got here, I had this feeling that this is where I was expected to live. There is a spirit in this Midwestern city that is like none other that I have ever experienced. People seem really to want to get along, and they really try to work together. They don't have quite the attitudes that you find many times in New York. There's just a wonderful sense of "let's get it done" here, and I felt that immediately.
Al: Where did you get your education?
I won a sales trip at one point and went to Caracas, Venezuela. My friend and I decided that we wanted to rent a car and just go driving. We rented a little Volkswagen and went up into the mountains, ate fresh fish, and got to meet people. When we started to return, we missed the exit to go back to the hotel. Well, you know here in Chicago if you miss the exit, you just keep going, take the exit, and come back. We drove a long time and finally saw a place where we could pull off. I hoped that we could just turn around. When we pulled off, here was a truck with a camouflaged canopy. Gorillas came out, stuck long rifles in the car and demanded that we give them our money and credit cards.
I remember seeing my kids' lives flash in front of me. I knew I wasn't going to die. I just knew that I was lucky. That experience taught me something very valuable about freedom. This would have been about 1982, and I was still responsible for my kids and couldn't really stop what I was doing in my life to analyze how I may be able to use what I was learning for what I am doing now. I had to put food on the table, make sure the kids were in soccer and doing all the things they needed to do while I was supporting them. I was their sole support, until they were out of the house, into college and getting one with their lives.
I am now married to my husband, Randy, who is the President of the Azerty, a division of United Stationery. He commutes back and forth from here to Canada. He would say to me; "This is your time. Go and do the things you have wanted to do". I still think my purpose in life is to try and make this world a better place.
I was offered a job about four years ago with a major advertisement agency to head up their sponsorship area. I had to make a decision whether I was going to take that job or start something on my own. I was really stressing about it. Randy and I wound up going to Phoenix, Arizona to interview some people at the Thunderbird School. At the time, he was handling all Asian operations. We went to Sedona, which is not only beautiful, but there is a wonderful current that runs through that whole area. It is very spiritual; I immediately felt at home.
However, I was still stressing out about whether I should take the job. Therefore, Randy said, "Let's go look at some art; you always feel better when you do that." So, we did just that, but I just didn't have any energy. I told Randy that needed a jolt of caffeine. There was a coffee shop right next door, but there was also one through a rose garden. I had been working to try to train myself to listen to my intuition for the last four or five years. I thought that I would go with my intuition and go to the one through the garden. When Randy walked up to the counter to get some coffee for me, and I looked over and there was one book that was for sale in this tiny little place. The book was titled Doing Well While Doing Good, the Marketing Link Between Non-Profit Causes and Corporate America. I felt my energy lift, because I knew at that point that I was in that particular spot to get that book. What I found out from the shopkeeper was that the author of the book had started the coffee shop and all the proceeds were going back into the community to help children. I also found out that it was the only place really on the planet that I could have found the book, because it had been out of print for three years. So, I think I was supposed to be there. I saw it as a sign. I knew what my decision was that I wasn't going to take this job with the advertising firm. I decided that I was going to try to create something to mobilize help for children.
Then the question was how to focus on a project because there is so much need? Do I do this here in Chicago or do I believe that I can do this on an international level? Where do I start? I think for me and for most people, it was just overwhelming. To clarify what that meant, I started to spend a lot of time in meditation and very focused thinking about what my purpose was. And like a lightning bolt, the answer was sent, and I did listen to it acting accordingly. That's how I got here. I want to change the world, and I have very specific issues about which I care.
Al: I would like you to give my readers an overall
idea of your organization and then talk about tall ship project in particular.
I started to develop a brand, and that actually
happened when I was in Rumania. I called
Rock the Castle. I went to
Rumania and within one week, it was completely sponsored. When I was there, I
thought, "Wow, wouldn't a castle be a great vision. It's also a stationary
venue where you could actually produce music My producer, David Stern, who just
produced the Yankee Stadium Event for 9/11 in New York is now our producer.
Then I was at a TV conference a week later and met a prince who was also a producer from France who has a castle. I thought, "You know I had never met anyone who had a castle before, now why am I meeting all these people with castles?" It must be because I've imagined it so. I believe that the world is conspiring to help me out. And so, I will just continue on that task.
Sun City has a castle, and they are giving to us the resort to rock and shake up the house down there too. This all began by believing and by being pragmatic and knowing that I had to find the venue. I needed to get some powerhouse people onboard with me. I needed to talk to everyone that would listen. I needed to get on an airplane if someone was willing to meet with me. I would go right then.
Before I knew it, I met Ike and Tina Turner, and I
was then invited to their anniversary celebration at Tavern on the Green. There
I met Michael Douglas his wife. Through them, I met Whitney Houston and David
Guest, who just married Liza Minnelli. The world is conspiring in a very good
In October, I was in Germany with Kaufman of the Scorpions and the Prime Minister of Germany. Everyone that I am meeting seems to understand our purpose. They are not interested in putting layers between who we are and who they were-in other words, it's a direct relationship. Therefore, I have these baskets of castles now and a lot of talent.
Al: What was your first focus going to be?
Al: So, now you have ships and castles. Actually, how many castles do you have under your realm?
Jeannette: We have over sixteen that are logistically located all over the world. They are located in Portugal, Spain, France, South Africa, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Morocco, England, Scotland, Ireland, Bolivia, Brazil, and then we have at least a half a dozen in the U.S. We just got a call yesterday from Arcadia University in Philadelphia. They have a castle on campus and want us to come there and rock it. We can sail the ship in and then do that!
Al: When is the actual kickoff?
This project of having a ship that sails for peace stopping in all these countries, which will be followed in classrooms around the world via the internet. We are developing a website where the kids will be able to follow us by satellite. When we get into the particular harbors, we will focus on a story, an unsung hero there.
I have a great story of a man from Lisbon who during WWII was an aristocrat, who found literally thousands of Jews trying to escape Portugal. The President of Portugal had told all the Portuguese officials that they would not be allowed to sign any visas to get anyone out of the country.
His name was Dr. Mendez. As the story goes, he
went to bed for three days, he was totally
grief-stricken over all these people
who he knew eventually would lose their lives. On the third day, he went down
to the harbor to decide what to do. He was going to have to meet God at some
point in his life and would rather meet him on the terms of saving people's
lives. He went down to the harbor and signed 30,000 visas and literally helped
these people get on ships to North America between in 1942-43.
When I got there, I couldn't believe what I saw. There was the story that I was looking for. Actually, there were four stories from four different countries. I got to meet the youngest son of Dr. Mendez who is now 79-years old and lives in San Francisco. His son supplied me with a tremendous amount of information. The Portuguese government has finally decided as of November, that they had made a big mistake. His father died in poverty leaving fourteen children. He died in an old folk's home all by himself because his name was destroyed. The Portuguese government finally gave him his family home back. Now, they have this mansion but no money to fix it up. Dr. Mendez and his son have asked me if I would help them to restore this home and help make it a museum for peace.
We want to engage kids in the peace process to write action plans and be a part in their own backyards by lobbying Washington, or building a peace garden, or writing a rap song. We don't really care what. We want to engage kids in positive actions so that they don't feel powerless-that's really our goal. Beyond that, we want to help raise money to leave behind in each country some symbol of peace. We have a lot of work to do; that's why I don't get much sleep.
Al: Do you and your husband ever see each other on the airplane?
Al: How affected are you by Eastern thought?
Jeannette: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
Al: Second favorite movie?
Al: Who is your favorite painter?
Al: I'll bring you back one of his paintings like
Ia Orana Maria when I go to Tahiti. Who is your favorite writer?
Al: I really appreciate your sharing time and your vision that you have for children of the world. I was going to wish you good luck, but with your imagination and the world conspiring for you, you don't need good luck. I hope that this interview will open more doors for you and your organization.
Jeannette: Thank you for the opportunity to tell my story to your readers.