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‘Angel on earth’: Family, friends, students recall Judy Chelette Thomas

 

By Ken Stickney

ken.stickney@panews.com

Generations of Port Arthur people knew Judy Chelette Thomas, who died Monday, mostly as the pretty teacher or loving guidance counselor who served children in her native Port Arthur’s public schools.

But Thomas, 72, was the youngest of The Chelette Sisters, James Leo and Josie Marie Chelette’s trio of gifted daughters who won a talent competition on the nationally broadcast Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour show, who once shared billing with Elvis Presley in the early 1950s and who performed both on Broadway and at the Grand Ole Opry.

“She radiated sunshine,” middle and sole surviving Chelette sister Carolyn Monte said of her younger sister Thursday, shortly after services at Clayton Thompson Funeral Home. “She loved the Lord and wanted to make sure the light He shared through her would be shared with others.”

Monte said students at Thomas Jefferson High School were introduced to that light the moment they entered her sister’s guidance office, where they were greeted by a desk sign that advertised her workspace as the “Department of Sunshine and Rainbows.”

“She was our counselor while we were at TJ 80-83,” recalled Erika Hoffman on the local website, Gulfway Drive Memories, this week. “… She was a beautifully and wonderfully sweet lady. May she rest in Heaven.”

“Never knew she was a singer,” wrote Orenthal James Smothers. “Remember her from TJ. She was a lovely lady. God bless the grieving family.”

But Judy Chelette was a singer of accomplishment. Oldest sister Mary Jo was the most determined of the Chelette singing sisters; at 14, she cut her first solo single and she pressed on with solo efforts as well as with the group. As a trio, the three sisters performed locally as early as 1947, when they competed on a local radio competition. With air time twindling that morning, the radio station told them they’d have to sing together, which launched an act that continued some 15 years into the early 1960s, when the sisters began to marry. Judy Chelette was 2 years old then and in the act’s early years, she stood on a box her father, a Port Arthur police officer, built so she could reach the microphone. Their mother — she was Port Arthur’s first aviatrix, friends said, learning to fly in 1939 — created their costumes.

The sisters won the Ted Mack competition in the early 1950s and Judy Chelette — she was then 6 or 7, her sister said — won hearts nationally when, as the sole blonde sister, she was asked by Mack on the air why she didn’t have red hair like her older sisters. “Daddy ran out of red paint,” she told him.

The Chelette Sisters appeared with teenager Elvis Presley in 1953 at a benefit for the Port Acres Fire Department. Judy Chelette’s lifelong friend Rita Davis recalled in Thursday’s prepared eulogy that when older sister Mary Jo declined Presley’s invitation for a Coca-Cola date, Judy, then 8, said, “Take me, take me.”

The sisters performed country and western music at a famed Broadway venue, The Palace Theatre, were part of Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee and appeared in a Paramount Studios movie that played on TV.

“We did the Grand Ole Opry and traveled all over the country,” Monte recalled of those years. “We did cool things for years and always managed to get excused from school. We were blessed.”

As the act wound down, Judy Chelette showed her academic talents at Thomas Jefferson High and participated in a variety of extracurricular activities. She was Football Sweetheart, Basketball Sweetheart, was a letter girl, won the Good Citizenship Award and played the snare drum in band. She was in the advanced science club, the glee club, the bowling club. She won Miss Port Arthur and was runner-up in the Miss Texas competition, Davis said.

She married Thomas A. Thomas, later a judge and “the love of her life,” Davis recalled, and the two shared a joyful union. He preceded her in death in 2014. They had no children, “the saddest part of her life,” her sister said Thursday, but she cherished her nieces and nephews.

In her 50s, she encountered the challenge of early onset Alzheimer’s disease, which became more evident in 2004. She retired from teaching — she had completed a master’s and her coursework for a doctorate — and spent most of her remaining 18 years at her Park Place home with her ailing husband. The disease progressed slowly at first, Davis recalled, and she remained at home with caregivers after her husband’s death. She entered nursing home care only after Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey.

Former students recalled her extraordinary kindnesses to them: buying clothes and supplies for the needy, assisting children in crisis, helping students enter college, “all the while never boasting of her accomplishments, only theirs,” Davis said.

“Judy truly was an angel on earth,” her friend said, “and every person she touched reaped the benefits of her kind but powerful nature.”