MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Her name was Dorothy Giles Stansbury, but many neighbors living in the East Memphis nook where she stayed simply knew her as Ms. Jean.
No one can find her family to let them know she died, so neighbors are posting what they know about Ms. Jean online in hopes of tracking down kin of the quiet-natured woman.
Ms. Jean was usually perched on the corner of Park Avenue and Mount Moriah Road, tucked behind garbage bags filled with her personal belongings.
If Ms. Jean was not in her usual place, neighborhood social media groups would go into a frenzy. “Anybody seen Ms. Jean? It’s awful cold out there,” one neighbor wrote on NextDoor.com in January. Ms. Jean eventually turned up, but none of the neighbors could talk the 67-year-old into going to a shelter to get out of the cold. No one can legally force a person off the streets, and no one wanted her to be arrested.
Residents, churches and community organizations tried for years to convince Ms. Jean to move to a permanent home. Through the seasons, despite the sweltering heat and freezing sleet, Ms. Jean continued to refuse to leave her roost. “So many tried to help her, but she would not accept anything. I would stop by and ask her if she needed anything and she would say, ‘No,’” recalled one woman who frequently visited Ms. Jean.
Ms. Jean struck a cord in the hearts of the people who lived in and around the neighborhood. A Sea Isle resident wrote on Facebook, “We all wanted to help her, but that was home to her. She didn't want to go to a shelter. She suffered bitter cold, and awful heat and never asked anyone for anything that I know of. All of us wanted so much for her, but she wanted so little for herself.”
Neighbors would go to Ms. Jean’s corner and ask about her story. They described her as harmless, endearing and not known to take drugs. One neighbor posted that he learned Ms. Jean’s family had dropped her off at the corner “a long, long time ago and never came back.”
A Laurelwood resident explained in her post why it’s important that people not judge Ms. Jean’s family, “…before we judge…remember we don’t know the whole story of the history. It might well be that the daughter tried everything in her power to help her mother and couldn’t…we just don’t know. Wish we did.”
Ms. Jean became part of the fabric of the community at that edge of her sidewalk. Knowing she wouldn’t find permanent housing, people just did what they could to offer her creature comforts. “I stopped and gave her a bag of cherries yesterday,” a neighbor posted. "She said she had never had them before.”
On March 3, a neighbor who had just brought Ms. Jean dinner posted on NextDoor, “Ms. Jean needs a blanket, please.” Soon, Ms. Jean had a new blanket.
“I never saw her be unpleasant or beg me for anything,” one neighbor explained. “If she had enough, when I asked what she needed, she would say, ‘No, I’m fine.’”
On May 19, when neighbors awoke to Ms. Jean’s garbage bags and no Ms. Jean, the social media frenzy began. Everyone began trying to piece together where she might be.
A rumor circulated that Ms. Jean was hit by a car. “I looked for her last night because of the rain and hoped she was somewhere dry and safe,” one person wrote.
Then, a police report confirmed the sad truth. A critical crash at 11:15 p.m. on May 18. A black Hyundai was traveling west on Park Avenue and struck Ms. Jean. The driver stayed on the scene. Paramedics rushed her to Regional One Hospital.
Neighbors placed a small tarp over Ms. Jean’s belongings in hopes that she would survive the accident and come back. They even went down to the hospital to check on her, but no one knew her full name.
People reflected on Ms. Jean’s circumstance, “From my understanding, she does have family and a place to stay, but chooses not to so as not to be a burden on the family,” a Facebook user said. “She’s the absolute sweetest person, but I’ve often wondered if there is some PTSD from abuse as she’ll talk to me but cowers when approached by a man. So usually, my husband and I go together and I give her the bags full of food and drinks while he stays a few steps behind. I really hope she’s ok and pulls through this."
On May 20, neighbors were worried when her bags were gone. “Any updates?? When I passed this morning, I didn’t see any of her things,” posted a woman from Colonial Acres.
Sadly, the police report revealed Ms. Jean had later died from her injuries.
“I’m so sad, I can’t stop crying,” one person wrote. “She didn’t have anything, but she loved her corner and felt safe there. I hope she knows how much we cared for her as a community and I hope she’s at peace with the Lord.”
Days after the community learned Ms. Jean had passed, neighbors put up wreaths where she used to sit, hung flowers on the pole nearby, and they’re wanting to find a way to honor her life, but there is no information beyond a name and birth date in the obituary posted in the newspaper.
A neighbor from Sea Isle Park posted, “My priest, Father Cortese of Holy Rosary Catholic Church, was able to see her on Monday and do a final blessing before she died. He is working on a plan to have some sort of service for her, if her family cannot be found.”
The church says there’s a delay because Ms. Jean’s family has not yet come forward. With that, the church is in a holding pattern to carry out the burial, waiting for Ms. Jean’s body to be released from the morgue, as Shelby County tries to locate the family. Neighbors say a generous donor has offered to pay to properly bury Ms. Jean.
Several neighbors posted their hope that Ms. Jean is finally at peace and recalled interactions with her. A Yorkshire couple posted with a heart emoji, “After we gave her a turkey and dressing dinner, she said, ‘You will be blessed 265 times’.”
A Cherry Meadows woman said, “My heart was moved by the love and respect she was given by the neighborhood. She was always Ms. Jean, not ‘that homeless lady.’”
An Arlington Park woman posted, “I have been amazed at all the people who cared about Ms. Jean. This city is special! May she rest in peace.”
A member of the Colonial View Civic Club wrote, “I often thought maybe God put her there to remind each of us just how blessed we are, and that it takes nothing to be kind to one another.”
If Ms. Jean’s family is not located, she will likely be buried in the Shelby County Cemetery on Ellis Road. However, caring members of the East Memphis community are hoping a family member will call Memphis police or the Shelby County Medical Examiner’s Office at (901) 222-4600 to claim her body.
Either way, it seems Ms. Jean found a family. Perhaps, she created a family by bringing people together in fellowship as they share their memories of Ms. Jean. For all one knows, Ms. Jean’s legacy could be to remind us that there are good people out there, that you are not alone, and that we all deserve grace.
A Colonial Acres resident seemed to sum it all up, “Ms. Jean, you will not be forgotten. You touched more lives that one can ever imagine!”