Friends miss spirit, warmth of woman whose joy lifted Valley music scene

  • Joanne Eldred with her favorite musician, Jackson Browne. Image from facebook/courtesy Gerriann Butler

  • Joanne Eldred made many friends through her love of music. Image courtesy Alan Friedman

  • Joanne Eldred, at right, with her New York friends Sheri Sankner and Alan Friedman before a Jackson Browne concert in New York City. Photo by Aly Friedman/courtesy Sheri Sankner

  • Joanne Eldred with another favorite musician, guitarist and singer-songwriter Val McCallum, the longtime sideman to Jackson Browne and other performers. Image from Facebook/courtesy Gerriann Butler

  • Eldred with her son, Brandon, at a favorite spot: Hampton Beach in New Hampshire. Image from Facebook/courtesy Gerriann Butler

  • Joanne Eldred, right, with her daughter, Patrice, at the “Friends” Pop-Up in Boston last fall. Image from Facebook/courtesy Gerriann Butler

  • Joanne Eldred, right, at The Parlor Room in Northampton with Gerriann Butler, left, and Lynn Rose. Image from Facebook/courtesy Gerriann Butler

Staff Writer
Published: 6/20/2020 5:52:24 PM

HOLYOKE — Some people make friends wherever they go. People who knew her say Joanne E. Eldred was just that sort of person: generous, fun, energetic, warm — someone who could lift your spirits through the joy she got from life.

And Eldred, who died April 21 at age 63 of complications from the COVID-19 virus, never forgot the friends she’d made growing up outside of Boston, continuing to spend time with them. Kathy Hogan, who was 13 when she and Eldred met in eighth grade in Woburn, says “She worked very hard at maintaining our friendship … she was my oldest and dearest friend.”

Born in Woburn in October 1956, Eldred held a number of jobs during her life, including as a drug and alcohol counselor, a domestic abuse counselor, a caterer and a landscaper. And during much of the past two decades, she became a familiar figure to many in the Valley’s music scene, a busy volunteer at local clubs who loved attending shows with friends.

People like Gerriann Butler of Northampton, who met Eldred about three years ago through their love of music, say they’re still devastated by their friend’s death, and by the fact no one could really say goodbye to her: She had spent nearly six weeks in the intensive care unit at Holyoke Medical Center, isolated from all physical contact except with medical staff.

“She was just so much fun to be with, and she was a tough person, someone who could stand up for herself,” said Butler, who also volunteers at local venues and does some paid work for Signature Sounds in Northampton. “It’s still really hard to believe she’s gone.”

Eldred was also “a great mom,” as one friend described her, someone who had raised her now-adult children — a son, Brandon, and daughter, Patrice — on her own after her marriage ended when her kids were young.

Though Eldred enjoyed different kinds of music and performers, friends say she had a special love for veteran folk-rocker Jackson Browne, attending many of his shows in different parts of the country and getting to know the singer personally.

“That’s how we met,” said Sheri Sankner, who lives in Brooklyn, New York and first made a connection with Eldred about six years ago through a Facebook site for Jackson Browne fans (they call themselves “Jacksonuts”). The two women and some other fans they corresponded with online then all met in person for the first time at a Browne show in Colorado.

“Joanne and I really hit it off,” said Sankner, an elementary school teacher. “We had a lot of things in common ... her laughter was infectious.” Along with Sankner’s boyfriend, the two women spent time together over the years at holidays, on road trips to hear shows, and on the phone, with each visiting the other’s home.

“She had found her passion with music, and she was a blast to be with,” Sankner said. “I miss her so much — we all miss her.”

Farming and sunbathing

Eldred came to the Valley in the early 1980s and at one point lived on a farm in Goshen where, according to her obituary in the Gazette, she “could be found sunbathing while driving a tractor.” She later lived in Florence and studied subjects such as forestry and park management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, graduating in 1992 and working for a time with the National Park Service.

Kathy Hogan, her childhood friend, notes that Eldred struggled with alcohol as a younger woman. “We all partied a lot in those days,” Hogan said. But after entering an Alcoholics Anonymous program, she said, Eldred “never touched a drop again.”

“She said ‘My kids are my highest priority, and I’m going to do things right by them,’ ” said Hogan, who now lives in Maine. “And she did. She was a kind, giving person, but she was also tough as nails.”

Singwen Mientka of Northampton met Eldred  about 30 years ago through AA and says Eldred became “a real rock for me. She was always there, always supportive … she always put other people’s needs before her own.”

When Mientka became a mother, she and Eldred would go camping together with their children and take other trips. “She loved to travel, to ski … she would just pack up and go. She wasn’t someone who needed a lot” of possessions.

Mientka also introduced Eldred to volunteering at area music clubs, getting her to help ushering one night at Northampton’s Calvin Theatre about 20 years ago. Friends say Eldred eventually became a go-to person as a volunteer in the area, spending time at music venues and events including the Green River Festival: staffing a will-call table, working as an usher, overseeing merchandise tables. She also helped coordinate the work of other volunteers at some of these sites.

Butler noted that although Eldred sometimes struggled financially, she always found ways to attend shows, sometimes bartering her volunteer work and her connections to musicians for tickets, and also finding ways to get them for friends.

“She wouldn’t let anything stop her,” Butler said. “She used to say ‘Life is short — buy the damn concert tickets.’ ”

It was after running a merchandise table for a Jayhawks show at the Academy of Music on March 8 that Eldred became ill, said Butler, who also worked at the show. “She seemed fine that night,” she said.

But Butler and others note that Eldred had battled a bad case of pneumonia at times this past winter, quite likely leaving her more vulnerable to COVID-19. After March 8, Eldred got sick again and was trying to recover at home. Friends said she was in contact at first through phone and social media, but then fell silent.

Sankner says she got a message from Eldred’s daughter, Patrice, about a week later saying Eldred had been taken to Holyoke Medical Center. Though COVID-19 was not diagnosed immediately, Eldred’s breathing was so impaired that she was put on a ventilator, and she remained on one for the better part of the six weeks she spent in the hospital.

In late March, though, she rallied for a time. Working with the nursing team at the hospital, Eldred’s children and friends were able to get an iPod playing her favorite music — including Jackson Browne tunes — next to her bed in the ICU. “She perked up and was able to come off the ventilator,” Butler said. “We went crazy. We were saying, ‘Jackson did it!’ ”

But then came a relapse; friends say Eldred’s lungs were too damaged to work on their own. She was put back on a ventilator and died April 21.

During all that time, Eldred’s children and her friends were posting updates on her condition on social media, including the Facebook page for Jackson Browne fans where Eldred had first met people like Sheri Sankner. Alan Friedman, another music friend from New York City, then created a GoFundMe page for Eldred’s children to help them with medical expenses and other bills, a campaign that raised over $18,000 in about two weeks.

Friedman says a good number of the contributions came from people who didn’t know Eldred personally but had followed her story on social media and were drawn to her struggle. “I think people got a sense of what a strong person she was and wanted to help,” he said. “She just had so much joie de vivre, and I think some of that came through” on social media.

When conditions allow it, friends say they want to come together with her family to hold a memorial service for Eldred. For now, they’re left with memories of a spirited, generous woman who, as Kathy Hogan puts it, “never held anything back.”

And Singwen Mientka says simply that her friend was “the most compassionate person I’ve ever known.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at 













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