Many living in Manchester New Hampshire today probably have heard of Vanessa Washington-Johnson-Bloemen. This is because she worked in, and behind the scenes of, countless city organizations or agencies. Her goal was to solve problems and promote the interests of young and old within her own community.
She died four years ago today, on March 2, 2011. She was 57 years old. I think she would have preferred that we remember her life, and the causes she championed.
Her husband, Dale Bloemen, expressed that there is one thing that he would like said about her in this story. As his oldest daughter noted, “Vanessa was a person who never met a stranger. People who met her immediately felt like she was a familiar friend.” I was one of those.
I met “Van,” as she liked to call herself then, in the latter half of the 1960s. We took health aide classes together, and then volunteered as candy stripers at Elliott Hospital in Manchester NH. We were 16 years of age, and starry eyed about helping people in need. My impression then of Vanessa was that she was energetic, friendly, and caring, and I enjoyed when we volunteered on the same hospital unit together. She loved to laugh, and her smile would light up a room. I met her again many years later at a conference, when we were both members of the fund-raising community. I thought at the time how beautiful she was–inside and out. Unfortunately it was a busy event, and there was little time to reminisce.
Vanessa grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire, attending Youngsville Elementary School, Central High School, and Southern New Hampshire University. According to a source close to her, Vanessa had received a scholarship to attend a medical school, but following the death of one of “her patients,” she gave up the idea. (I suspect this occurred while she was working at Elliot Hospital, as mentioned above).
She was then determined to learn merchandising and spent some time in New York City. Soon returning to New Hampshire she became very active in local politics, the needs of Manchester’s minority communities, children, education, and the under-served. She left New Hampshire a few more times during her life, always coming quickly back home to the place she knew, the people she loved, and those who loved her.
Some of her work accomplishments were expressed in her obituary: She was campaign director for The United Way of Greater Manchester from 1994 to 1998. From 2001 to 2008 she was communications associate and planned giving associate for the American Cancer Society and later was a computer applications training specialist and sole proprietor of Hendrix House.
She was active in the community and was involved with the Martin Luther King Coalition as program director, publicity coordinator and webmaster and was a member of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce. She was selected to six terms on the Manchester School Board; served as past-president of the NAACP; vice president and secretary and a member of Manchester Lions Club and became the first female president.
As a volunteer she was also involved with the Manchester YWCA as secretary of the board, Action Audit Task Force chair, National Convention delegate, N.H. Lions zone chair and Swift Water Girl Scout Council as a board member, nominating committee chair, and minority audit task force chair. Vanessa also worked with the American Lung Association on the personnel committee, Greater Manchester Black Scholarship Foundation and was a founding member, scholarship awards committee chair, and secretary and on the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Development.
When she died she left behind a grieving family: her husband, Dale Bloemen; four sisters: Phyllis Johnson, Jackye Johnson, Jessica Richardson and Ilene Johnson; and two nephews. She also left behind friends, colleagues, and admirers from all walks of life.
It is as impossible to fully explain Vanessa’s personality as it would have been to bottle her remarkable energy. In 1994 John Clayton in his city column noted: “Separated at Birth: Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg and Ward 4 School Board member Vanessa Johnson.” She enjoyed dressing up. A 1996 Union Leader newspaper article, under the title of “Best And Worst Dressed,” once teasingly named her ‘Best 2: Vanessa Johnson. Classy and elegant.”
She was joyful. It was impossible for five minutes to pass without Vanessa smiling, laughing, cracking a joke, or otherwise finding something marvelously entertaining in the moment.
She was persistent and politely unrelenting. This is evidenced in her work on the school board, and also in her choice of profession as a fund raiser. It is a difficult path with a quick burn-out rate, and yet she pursued a successful career in that field for many years.
She was geeky. She took to computers like a duck takes to water, even starting her own training company.
She loved her family, and especially adored and looked to her father as a role model. No doubt he greatly shaped her perspective on life. [Editor’s note: Much has been written about her father, Lionel Johnson, in other places. He was New England Civil Rights Hall of Famer, freedom-fighter, Manchester selectman, NH legislator, and loving father to five daughters including Vanessa.]
She loved animals, particularly dogs, and especially her afghan hound, Hendrix.
The well-quoted author, Dr. Steve Maraboli, said “Smile at strangers and you just might change a life.” Vanessa followed this maxim every day of her life.
There are plenty of women in New Hampshire that I could have selected to write about–some with more credentials than Vanessa, others with greater political positions or aspirations. Still others certainly worked harder and longer for the local minority community. But being that this is my blog, and I get to choose, I choose her. Because Vanessa Washington-Johnson-Bloemen is my personal hero. She should be yours too.