The Way We Were: Margarette Jeanne Hardage Chambliss

The Way We Were: Margarette Jeanne Hardage Chambliss
The Hardage home, at 1700 King Street (corner Riverside and King), was demolished in the 1970s

A conversation with Jeanne Hardage Chambliss is an amusing, witty journey filled with interesting stories of growing up in Riverside, her extensive world travels, fascinating people she knows and has known, her 40-plus years of teaching experience, and what it takes to live and die. 

Chambliss’s family helped shape her into the memorable person she is today, but the Hardage family wasn’t exactly Ozzie and Harriet.  As the baby of five brothers and three sisters, Jeanne was born at home on Belvedere Avenue in Riverside in July of 1938. Her closest sister, Derry Jo, was 14 months older and her oldest brother was 18. Her mother, Winifred, went into labor when she was scrubbing the bathroom floor. One of the older siblings called the doctor, who was so accustomed to the Hardage baby boom that he was practically a member of the family. Chambliss’s parents named one of her brothers after the good doctor.

Jeanne, age 3
Jeanne, age 3

Chambliss’s mother was very strict and religious and considered it “God’s intention” for her to have nine children.” The family attended Riverside Park Church of Christ, and Chambliss related that part of her life-long rebellious nature stemmed from having to attend church every Wednesday night and three times a day on Sundays. 

When her older siblings were going to the beach on Saturdays, Derry Jo and Jeanne had piano lessons, then Bible class. While Derry Jo continues to embrace her religious upbringing, missing out on the fun when they were young only fueled Jeanne’s rebellious nature, said Chambliss. She longed to take ballet class at Thelma Johnson Baggs’s Studio, catty corner from her home on King Street, but ballet, along with swimming at Good Shepherd Pool, was not allowed. “Of course, we went swimming anyway!” she said.

After attending West Riverside Elementary School and John Gorrie Junior High, Chambliss was on the swim team at Robert E. Lee High School and took ballet classes while in college. “Being forbidden to do something? I learned so many lessons about rebellion! My daughter said I never gave her anything to rebel against!” Chambliss laughed. 

Hers was a lively family with many high-spirited personalities. “If you survived this household, it was a great preparation for life,” she said.

 The Hardage family frequently gathered around to sing and play instruments, although now she probably couldn’t even find middle C, Chambliss joked.  Her father, Hugh Hardage, Sr., particularly loved “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” Another past time was listening to the radio. A show called “Digger O’Dell” was filled with jokes about undertakers, including the catch phrase, “This old Southern planter will be shoveling off,” to which her father would respond, “Have hearse will travel,” – an amusing comment considering her father was an undertaker and his profession was a defining part of Chambliss’s upbringing. 

Her father worked for a casket company before opening Hardage and Williams Funeral Home in 1929. It later became known as Hardage and Sons, as four of the boys joined him in business, then eventually became Hardage and Giddens. Conversations in the household often centered around death. 

Sisters, Derry Jo and Jeanne
Sisters, Derry Jo and Jeanne

A fun activity for Chambliss, if her father had to stop by the “office” after church, was to sneak into the embalming room, which was strictly forbidden. “Death was a frequent topic in our house. Undertakers have a wicked sense of humor. Growing up around the funeral business, the mystery of death was gone. I saw the practicality of the whole business. I’m the only member of the family to feel this way. The others remained religious. But I lean more to Joseph Campbell’s mythology. I am bonded to the existentialists and the Theater of the Absurd. I can relate many incidences in anyone’s life to the absurdist views. We are going through it right now, every day!” 

That ever-present mindfulness of death increased when Chambliss’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and struggled for seven years before dying when Chambliss was only 13 years old. “There was so much life in our house, but there was also a focus on death. The word cancer was never mentioned, and we certainly could not say “breast.” It just wasn’t discussed, but we had to be quiet in the house all the time because my mother was sick. Fortunately, we had the run of Riverside,” she said.

From riding bikes to Memorial Park, walking to Seller’s Drugstore at Park and King, jumping out of hedges to frighten walkers on King Street, being rescued by the nuns at St. Vincent’s when their older sister tied their feet together and threatened to throw them in the river for walking down the street in her high heels, or being tied to a tree by the housekeepers – there was always something going on. Death may have been a normal everyday topic, but life in the Hardage home was definitely lively!

As events form us, so do places, and there was no more interesting place to grow up than the Hardage home at 700 King Street, on the corner of King Street and Riverside Avenue, which her father bought in 1941. It is featured in George Hallam’s’ book, “Riverside Remembered.” Gone since the 1970s, this 28-room house was three stories with a full basement, which Chambliss described as looking like a hotel laundry room. Big Pearl and Old Louise, the family’s two housekeepers lived in the basement. Chambliss called Louise, the housekeeper, “old” to distinguish her from Young Louise who came during the day to work. A German gardener, Mr. Neuhaus, who gave the girls coffee with lots of sugar in it, also shared the basement. Going down there was forbidden, of course, which made it particularly enticing, Chambliss said. “My father had to go vouch for Mr. Neuhaus since this was during the war. At one time we had an aunt, grandmother and two nurses from St. Vincent’s living in the house, too.” 

The porch was expansive enough for parties, a ping-pong table, and for the kids to roller skate. Mrs. Hardage placed flower planters around the porch to keep the children from falling off. 

Her mother ran that huge house even though she was dying, she said. “I recently saw a movie of her having a party for the church ladies. She was so generous to people. My mother being ill obviously had a huge impact on my life, and my father died when I was 25.”

With their older siblings grown and their father working, Chambliss said she and her siblings turned to Pearl and Louise for comfort when their mother died. 

About a year after his wife passed away, Mr. Hardage remarried, sold the house and the family moved to Hedrick Street. “We made it our mission to make our stepmother as miserable as possible and were frequently farmed out to brothers and sisters when she got upset. I was so defiant. Daddy learned it was easier to give in instead of being confrontational,” Chambliss said.

Later, she and her sister, Derry Jo left Jacksonville for Pepperdine University in California, where an older brother lived.  “Want to torment a teen? Send her to California to get straightened out. First of all, the school was integrated, which Jacksonville schools were not at the time, and it was much more liberal than Jacksonville. I stayed my freshman year then I came home and went to Jacksonville University to major in English. But I was in no hurry. I knew it would never get any better than that. Dad paid for everything, but I had to fight. My sisters had gotten married at 19 so I assume he thought I would too,” she said, noting Derry Jo left to go home earlier.               

Jeanne during her modeling days
Jeanne during her modeling days

After modeling locally for major department stores like Furchgotts, Purcell’s and Levy’s, and for well-known photographer Lou Egner while at Jacksonville University (JU), Chambliss took off to Dallas, Texas, to live with her older sister, Mary, and work for the John Roberts Powers Modeling Agency. She modeled and taught modeling for a while before coming back to Jacksonville to finish her degree at JU. After graduation, she taught at Terry Parker High School before moving to New York City to continue her modeling career. “That didn’t go so well, but I didn’t have any fear about it at all,” she said. “Actually, nothing could have stopped me. But it was hard – no computers then to figure out how to do things.” 

Chambliss met Aubry Hayes in 1958 and married him three weeks later, but the marriage only lasted through the summer. In 1968, she married Gerry Chambliss, and her daughter, Shaula, was born in 1970. Chambliss was divorced in 1972.  She had friends in London, including Herbert Kretzmer, who is known as the lyricist for “Les Miserable,” so she and Shaula moved to London for three and a half years. She and Kretzmer remain friends, and she visits him every summer.

For a girl whose goal was to get out of Jacksonville, she certainly achieved that during her marriage to Chambliss, who owned an international marine insurance company. They traveled all the time, she said. “Rome four times a year. India, Honduras, Central and South America, Libya, Kuwait and too many other places to list. Always first class and with a driver in each city. His favorite place in the world was the Cavalieri Hilton in Rome, so Shaula and I went there after he died four years ago and sprinkled some of his ashes in the sculpture garden. We slipped around while people were dining, sipped champagne and spread a few ashes in the planters of Harry’s American Bar as well. It was somewhat distracting to people.”

Chambliss continues to explore the world. She and her traveling companions, which include Shaula, her niece, Elaine Wheeler, as well as Gunnel Humphries, sister Derry Jo, and their dear friend, recently deceased Sally Evans, have spent time with Herbert Kretzner in London, toured Italy, and taken trips to Barcelona so that Chambliss can visit a special shop to buy her favorite Beatles socks. Chambliss said she loves the Beatles, especially John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” 

Ironically, for someone who couldn’t wait to get out of Jacksonville, she returned in the 70s, earned a Masters degree at the University of North Florida, and taught school in Clay County for 41 years.

Shaula Chambliss and her mother, Jeanne
Shaula Chambliss and her mother, Jeanne

Chambliss’s career included teaching at Florida State College Jacksonville and working with Orange Park High School’s gifted program. She remains close with many of her students, including Greg Smith, who graduated from Orange Park High when he was 10 years old. Chambliss appeared in a segment of 60 Minutes with Ed Bradley about her work with the young genius. Her innovative and creative teaching methods – particularly the Great Gatsby parties, recreations of the sets and props for “The Glass Menagerie” and “The Scarlett Letter” –  are legendary. “Each book that I taught inspired me. I love Oscar Wilde quotes, and Faulkner’s Nobel prize acceptance speech. I just bought Michelle Obama’s book. I admire her,” she said.

Chambliss celebrated her retirement by sky diving with five of her students and now has more time to read, travel and perhaps try her hand at writing and talking. She loves to go on about her travels, her childhood adventures in Riverside, the unusual elephant “bone” she recently passed on to Shaula, and the time she wore the unmentionable objects to guard against conception that were designed by Gunnel Humphries so she could teach a class on abstinence to teenagers. 

She also loves to discuss ideas and people, such as the time she was with Billy Daniels and met Dr. Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson on their way to an NAACP march in Chicago. Literature, art, philosophy, making a difference in the world, and a defining moment in her life – having a daughter – are also favorite topics. “I wanted a daughter. Now, we are so close. Shaula is a better person than I am – so nurturing to humans, animals. So generous.” 

As a former model, Gator Bowl Queen candidate, teacher, and “Gorgeous Aunt Jeanne,” as she instructed her 23 nieces and nephews to call her, Chambliss at 81 is still gorgeous, fashionable, witty, droll, defiant and full of fun. Eccentric? That, she said, as she modeled her Yellow Submarine socks, is something to which she can only aspire.

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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