For Terry Meade, the threads of her life have come together in a surprising pattern that landed her in a totally unexpected place.
Meade was recently named the executive director of the Ms. New Jersey Senior America Pageant.
Her volunteerism in the pageant’s service wing, the Cameo Club, has woven together her love of Broadway, dance and costuming; her job as secretary to Adrian Kantrowitz, who performed the first heart transplant in the United States; and her husband Mark’s near-fatal heart disease that led him to his own transplant.
The transitional moment that brought together many of Meade’s life experiences happened in 2005. Mark, who had a history of serious cardiac problems, insisted on joining her in San Jose for the week-long 10th anniversary celebration of eBay, where she had been actively involved for many years.
While there, he had a massive heart attack and went into cardiac arrest during their first night in the hotel. Fortunately she was able to get him to Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, where he had bypass surgery immediately.
His badly damaged heart put him regularly into pulmonary edema, and he eventually had a heart transplant in 2008.
Although a heart transplant “is not a cure” and he has “challenges every day,” Meade says, “we are blessed beyond comprehension” and “we do everything as if our donor is watching us.”
That “everything” means that she and her husband are “passionate volunteers” for the N.J. Sharing Network, Gift of Life in Philadelphia, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Associations.
She said they speak at hospitals, medical schools, high schools and senior communities to help raise awareness of the critical need for organ and tissue donation. “Without an organ donor, he was gone; he wouldn’t have lasted another week,” she said.
So how did this busy, dedicated volunteer happen upon the Ms. Senior America Pageant? While attending her 50th high school reunion in 2013, she saw a former schoolmate wearing a crown and sash, and she thought, “What’s up with this? Girls from Brooklyn don’t aspire to pageants.” But the woman, remembering her talent for dancing, approached her and said, “You really need to do this,” to which Meade responded, “No, it’s not for me.”
Meade put it out of her mind, but the woman was not to be put off. The state director of New Jersey called her and invited her to visit a showcase by former contestants who were now part of the Cameo Club, the organization’s service wing, at the Arcadia Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Hamilton. Within 10 minutes, Meade signed up for the 2014 pageant. “These were the most talented ladies with the biggest hearts performing for the residents,” she says.
These performances by opera and popular singers and dancers as well as group numbers were very moving for the viewers. “The music just brought back memories to them. I looked at each of those residents as if they were my mom and dad and thought about how they would have enjoyed this,” she says.
For Meade, the pageant wasn’t about the crown and sash, although she says it was great fun. The 60-plus contestants did not have to don swimsuits, but she did have to model an evening dress. Her talent act was dancing to “Take Back Your Mink” from Guys and Dolls, which she did as a tribute to her mom, who had done it in community theater when she was a child.
She also had to submit to an interview with five judges and to share her philosophy of life. “I quoted C.S. Lewis about how an event in your life can change your destiny. In my case it was a heart transplant,” she says.
According to Meade, the pageant is for women age 60 or older, “who have reached the age of elegance and exemplify the dignity and maturity of all senior Americans.”
Meade is also a member of the Cameo Club. The former pageant participants perform 40 to 50 showcases each year in senior centers, nursing homes, veterans facilities and sometimes parades.
In her first year with the Cameo Club, Meade learned the ropes and tried to do as many showcases as possible—that first year she was required to repeat the routine she did in the pageant, but since then she has developed several more.
In one of them she sings “All I Want for Christmas Is You” to her husband.
“I explain his heart transplant story before I perform, no matter where we are,” she says. “It is a much larger arena to raise awareness, and I consider that my mission.” And people always stick around to tell their own stories and ask questions.
The next year she was elected vice president of the N.J. Cameo Club, which she did for two years, and this year she was appointed to be executive director of the Ms. N.J. Senior America Pageant. The pageant, which is looking for diverse participants, is marketing itself with the tagline, “Is there a CROWN in your future?”
Brooklyn-born Meade, 71, said she remembers her parents doing ballroom dancing since she was very young. “My father made every woman feel like she was Ginger Rogers,” she says, and in fact she chose to play “Dance with My Father,” by Luther Vandross for his funeral.
She attributes her “fabulous and passionate love for music and dance” to her parents. It also translated also into a lifelong love of Broadway. “When I could save up enough money, I was at the theater. To this day, it’s what is in my heart.”
As a youngster she studied tap and modern interpretive dance and recalls dancing as part of Sing—a competition between different classes at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn. Each class would pick a theme and put on an original show, and her class was the first to win as both juniors and seniors.
Meade did well academically and graduated from high school in 1963 at age 16, but decided to attend Nancy Taylor Business School in Manhattan and study executive secretarial science, expecting to soon marry Mark, who was her long-time boyfriend. They wed in 1965, and in 1971 moved to East Windsor, where they raised their children. The couple moved to Village Grande in 2000.
Right after she graduated from secretarial school, Meade worked for several years at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn for Dr. Adrian Kantrowitz, who did the first heart transplant in the U.S. when she was with him.
When her children were growing up, she co-owned the needlework store, In Stitches, in Twin Rivers. It was a natural fit. “My grandparents had a French dry cleaning business, and I grew up sitting on the tailor’s lap and learning how to sew,” she says.
The store supported all manner of needlework. Accustomed to the fancy stamped needlepoint canvases she had brought with her from New York, she saw that the only ones available nearby were “very sedate, boring projects.” So once she opened her store, she brought inventory from New York designer showrooms.
After eight or nine years her partner’s husband was transferred to Ohio, and although Meade was contacted by the newly opening Quakerbridge Mall to move her store there, she decided she wasn’t ready to commit to those kinds of retail hours and closed her shop.
She then worked for about 15 years as customer service manager for Lenox China outlet in Cranbury. “It touched on my creative side,” she says. “I was able to do all the store displays, signage and marketing.”
She said that by the time she retired from Lenox in 2000, she “had accumulated an obscene amount of product over the years and didn’t know what to do with it.” When someone told her about eBay, she wasn’t stopped by the fact that she did not own a computer.
She immediately ran out and bought a computer and the least expensive digital camera she could find. Her son hooked it all up, and that night she listed her first item on eBay.
She sold more and more, became a power seller, and eventually an unpaid consultant for eBay, a member of “voices of the community,” and eBay flew her around the country to different company events. People would also hire her as a trading assistant to sell items like cars, boats, time shares, fine art, jewelry and designer items.
This year’s pageant will be held on June 6 at Harrah’s Resort and Casino in Atlantic City. The winner will compete for the national title of “Ms. Senior America 2018” in October at Resorts Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. In 2017 Ms. N.J. Senior America Carolyn Slade Harden went on to win the title of “Ms. Senior America 2017.”
Meade says that women who might be interested in competing can contact her at (908) 216-8534 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or an application.
“It is not a beauty pageant; it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with your life experience, whether you can talk to the media, how you express yourself, what is in your heart,” Meade says. “We touch people’s lives. We get back so much more than we give.”
As Al Mott, a lawyer who created the pageant over 40 years ago and runs it with his wife, Betsy, says of the 60-plus crowd, “I’m going to take these ladies out of the rocking chairs and put them on the runway.”