BELOIT — A Beloit International Film Festival (BIFF) documentary shows how one man’s bright colors, happy animals and animated cartoons helped a little Beloit girl fight for her life and win.
“The Bear and the Owl” is the story of the late Clinton schools superintendent Bob Jensen’s therapeutic artwork. In 1986 Jensen sent then 7-year-old Joni Vorass Lillard cartoon-filled and sometimes life-sized cards to lift her spirits.
The documentary interviews Lillard and her parents, Debbie Fischer and Steve Vorass Sr.; Bob Jensen’s younger brother David Jensen; and his sons Jeff and Jay Jensen. Linda Beals, the longtime Beloit postal worker who tucked the cards under her raincoat to keep them dry, also shares her story. The film was produced by Bob’s daughter Jan Jensen and her husband director/editor Mark Davis. They filmed the documentary last year after the holidays. Bob Jensen had passed away in March 2014.
The cards started arriving when Lillard was at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, suffering from VATER, an acronym for the various birth defects associated with the syndrome. With her esophagus connected to her lungs at birth, Lillard had to undergo immediate surgery. Because of VATER syndrome, Lillard was born with one kidney and suffered the loss of various organs due to infection.
After Lillard’s first grade teacher Jean Schrader put a notice in the Beloit Daily News requesting cards for the girl, Lillard was showered with cards and gifts.
But Bob Jensen not only sent her one handmade card, but sent her one every day for the next two-and-a-half years.
Jan Jensen said she was in junior high around the time her father befriended Lillard. Not only did Jensen make cards for Lillard, but for friends' anniversaries, birthdays and more. His colorful signs dotted the Clinton landscape as friends hoped to receive one of his signature owl paintings on barn board.
Although thoughtful to all, he had a special soft spot for ill children. However, many of the children he made cards for were terminally ill, and didn’t survive.
Jan Jensen said Lillard was a bit of a “miracle child.”
“They never expected her to walk or talk. She flatlined in surgery. The fact she has survived and has been able to live a pretty normal life is amazing,” Jensen said.
After her father passed way, Jensen was able to track Lillard down in Beloit and was surprised to find out she still had all the cards Bob Jensen made her. Every time Lillard has moved, the cards came along.
“She has three giant-sized bins full of cards. It’s the biggest collection of my dad’s art that exists,” Jensen said.
Lillard’s mother Debbie Fischer explained how the cards were voraciously read and appreciated by her daughter. Fischer was living out of a Boston hospital for the three years when her daughter was the most ill.
“When we were in Boston, doctors and nurses told us she wouldn’t live much longer. Surgery after surgery was pretty risky, but with our faith in God, our strength, and people like Bob Jensen, we kept going,” Fischer said.
Lillard still recalls the first card she received, with a turtle and a hamburger. It read, “Hi there Joni. This little turtle is here to say hope you are feeling better today.”
Although Lillard treasured the artwork, she didn’t realize there would be more to follow. She came to rely upon them so much, Fischer said her daughter would be depressed on weekends or holidays when the mail wouldn’t come. Fischer even considered tucking a couple cards aside for long holiday weekends.
“I would look forward to it every single time and be so excited and happy when I got one in the mail,” Lillard said.
In addition to the daily cards, there would also be other surprises such as a room-size banner, or an animal shaped card with a return address on the tail. Others would feature Lillard’s favorite, bears, or Jensen’s beloved owls. Other times he’d draw a panda bear with a Joni T-shirt or make miniature drawing or calligraphy lessons. Through it all, the animals would make little jokes to let Lillard know she was loved.
Some of the envelopes were so big they wouldn’t fit through the mail machines.
In the documentary, postal worker Linda Beals recalled the large cards she tucked under her raincoat. Later, Jensen sent Beals two thank-you cards for ushering the cargo to safety and ensuring it didn't get wet or bent.
Jensen said her father worried Lillard would be sad or lonely without a daily card so kept sending them. If he had to travel, he would pack up the cards to mail on the road.
However, Jensen’s kindness extended far beyond the mail which continued until she was a teenager. He attended birthday parties, taught origami and would dote on Fischer’s other two children — Steve Vorass, Jr. and Angie Kaftenholz.
“He was there for birthday parties, her wedding, and he really became part of our family,” Fischer said. “Bob didn’t just take Joni under his wing, he took all my children under his wings. He taught them skills in a soft quiet way. Bob is part of the reason Steve, Jr. is a web designer.”
“At Christmas time we would either go to his house or my family and I would meet somewhere. He always had Christmas presents for me and my brother and sister,” Lillard said.
Jensen would later attend Lillard’s graduation and wedding. Although the correspondence dropped off as they got older, they remained in contact for years.
Today, Joni has a 7-year-old daughter and works as a pharmacy technician in Madison. She’s also about to undergo her 42nd, and possibly final, surgery. Although she’s on antibiotics, she’s in relatively good health, something she credits, in part, to Jensen.
“It played a big part in getting back to health, that and my mom,” she said.
Fischer said the documentary was a wonderful way to share her family’s story. She said she hopes it will encourage others to share their talents to make people happier.