The second of Annie Lee McClellan’s eight children, Jo Ethel Flonnoy was born April 12, 1934 in the rural hamlet of Keo, Arkansas. Her father Willie Flonnoy delivered ice to homes in the area, an important profession in an era where most homes lacked indoor plumbing and modern refrigeration.
At age 13 Jo Ethel moved with her family, which by then included six siblings and a stepdad, Arthur Robinson, to Kansas City, MO when Arthur’s brother Jack got him a job with the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
The family settled in the close-knit east side community of Leeds, in a home at 5616 E 37th Street. Jo Ethel immediately enrolled at R.T. Coles Jr. High School, and later Lincoln High School, immersing herself in the local community, which was anchored by Pilgrim’s Rest Baptist Church. She accepted Christ as a teenager, being baptized by the pastor at Pilgrim’s Rest, the Reverend F. D. Robinson.
At Pilgrim’s Rest she met Kenneth E. Ray, whom she married in 1951 at age 16. The couple produced two daughters, Evelonne and Regina, and two sons, Kenneth Jr, and Gregory. Jo Ethel enthusiastically assumed the duties of wife and mother, and began raising her family.
When the couple divorced in 1958 Jo Ethel was forced to go to work, but with limited education, she accepted jobs as a waitress in Kansas City’s 18th & Vine district, working at Club Mardi Gras and later at Sherman’s Barbecue at 16th and Prospect. Determined to feed and clothe her family, she went back to school. An honor student, she learned keypunch, shorthand, and typing, graduating from Manual High School in 1964. Shortly thereafter she landed a temporary job at the Internal Revenue Service Center, and was eventually hired full time as a personnel clerk, and stayed at the IRS for 27 years, retiring in 1992.
She could really cook too, or “burn” as she referred to it. She mastered all the standard soul food specialties, and baked as well. Her sweet potato pies and homemade rolls were legendary, and her German chocolate cake was exquisite.
After her retirement she joined Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church where she sang in the choir, of course, but also found time to tutor students in reading at J.S. Chick Elementary School.
In 1995 at the urging of her daughter Regina she returned to school for a second time, and graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1999, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal arts with an emphasis in theatre. While at UMKC she showed off her athletic prowess. In 1998, at age 64 she actually won a UMKC racquetball tournament, defeating opponents young enough to be her granddaughters.
Because she loved her sons and her sons loved sports she unwittingly developed an appreciation for the NFL, the NBA, and MLB. She was a fan of the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, and was quite amused by the antics of Dennis Rodman and Reggie Jackson. One of her favorite baseball stories, which she told repeatedly and acted out, involved Jackson, Yankees manager Billy Martin, teammate Thurman Munson, and a failed bunt attempt by Jackson during the 1977 season. It cracked her up and she loved telling it.
She admired the music of Nancy Wilson, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Al Green, Sade, Bootsie Collins, and Parliament-Funkadelic.
Jo Ethel departed this life April 7, 2020 after a lengthy illness. To mourn her passing she leaves three sisters, Marian Flonnoy of Chicago, IL, Gloria J. Robinson, and Emma J. Robinson of Los Angeles, CA, one brother, John H. Simbler, Jr. of Spokane, WA, a daughter, Regina Ray of Kansas City, MO., two sons, Kenneth E. Ray, Jr. of West Bloomfield, MI, and Gregory A. Ray, of Rockville, MD. She had only two natural granddaughters, Sydney, and Kaelin, but was called “Grandma” by many whom she loved, adopted and treated accordingly. She leaves a best friend, Mozell Jacobs, of Kansas City, MO, and a host of cousins, nieces, nephews, and friends in various cities throughout the USA.
She will be sorely missed by those who knew her and loved her. We thank God for her life, we celebrate it, and we take solace in the fact that she now rests comfortably in the arms of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and that someday we will see her again.
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