Josephine Willhauck McClernon

Josephine Willhauck McClernon

In Remembrance
March 9, 1931 - June 17, 2024

Josephine “JoNell” Willhauck McClernon, 93, of Hillsborough, NC died on June 17, 2024. She was preceded in death by her loving husband of 52 years, Bob McClernon, who died in 2004. Her passing was peaceful and full of love as she was surrounded by bird song, the whistle of trains, her favorite music, a beloved old tree, and most importantly, her family. 

Several generations of family members were at her side during her final moments, including a great-grandchild who she had welcomed into the world at his birth. Loved by many and forever the extrovert, it was most appropriate that in the weeks and months before her passing, JoNell was visited and surrounded by family and friends. As a final gift to one another, JoNell and her loved ones were able to express their deep love and gratitude for each other.

JoNell was born on March 9, 1931 in St Louis, Missouri, to the late Joseph Willhauck and Toy Sanders Wuest. She was one of six children (Mozelle, Rethel, Ruthy, Laverne, Josephine, and Billy) and the youngest girl. JoNell grew up during the Great Depression, which may have influenced her traits of resourcefulness, generosity, and resilience. From a young age she loved to sing and perform. She was active in school, church services, and various activities where she could share her gift with others. JoNell received the Most Beautiful Voice award in her senior year at Cleveland High School. She sang the lead in the operetta, Good News, while in high school and continued performing throughout college. Her voice was a true gift to all who were lucky enough to hear it. JoNell had fond memories of being a drum majorette and spending many winters skating at Lafayette Park with her multitude of friends. She was fortunate to go through school with her many of the same dear friends with whom she kept in contact throughout her life, particularly Joan Schaller Yeckel.

JoNell’s adoring mother, Toy, ensured she had access to voice lessons despite financial constraints. JoNell was always grateful for Alma Schaller, the mother of her good friend, Joan Schaller Yeckel, who supported her singing career and made sure she had nice dresses for performances. Ms. Schaller also arranged for JoNell to receive voice lessons from a prestigious music school in St Louis as well as provided her with many opportunities to perform within the community. JoNell continued to nurture her love for school, music, and people when she attended Drury College as a voice major. There she participated in many productions, including opera. German Lieder was her favorite form of opera to perform. In fact, she met her husband, Bob McClernon, at Drury after he heard her sing. JoNell married Bob on August 28, 1952 at Grace Evangelical; Reformed Church in St. Louis, MO. 

After Drury College, the couple moved to Chicago while Bob attended seminary school. JoNell had many fond memories of this time including hearing Mahalia Jackson perform and the birth of her and Bob’s first child, Rebecca. Upon graduation, they moved to Charlotte, NC for Bob to become Associate Youth Minister at Myers Park Baptist Church. JoNell and Bob expanded their family further, welcoming two more children– first Daniel and then Elizabeth. This is where JoNell met her dear friend, Jenny Lynn Jamison, who also had young children and shared her love of art, music, and civil rights issues.

JoNell and Bob later moved with their three young children to Durham, NC for his appointment to Senior Minister at Watts Street Baptist Church. JoNell continued to share the gift of her voice and charisma by singing in the choir, providing joy to all who heard her. She touched many lives and she was touched by many during her twenty-two years at Watts Street. During this time, JoNell was also active in her community through volunteer work. During her time as a mother of children and teens, she provided a loving and happy home to her family and menagerie of animals. She also extended her love onto her children’s friends and was adored by them. 

At age 41, JoNell decided to become a nurse. She received her LPN license from Watts Hospital Nursing School and at age 50 received her RN license from Wake Technical College Nursing School. Nursing was a career that brought her years of happiness, fulfillment, friendship, and pride. Being a nurse was a part of her being and even in her declining years she always identified herself as a nurse.

JoNell later adopted the role of grandmother. She was unmatched in this role, creating enough love and laughter to last her grandchildren a lifetime. She curated memorable holidays and annual beach trips and wrestled in the ocean with her grandchildren. She cooked, cleaned, cared for them when they were sick, played baseball in the basement, and fostered their curiosity and intellect by exposing them to rich art, music, movies, and literature. She also extended her love and care to their friends by driving them around Durham, facilitating play dates, and genuinely caring about their wellbeing.

JoNell adored animals, taking in many strays and rescues over the years. She especially loved dogs and her beloved cat, Angel. Her circle of compassion and love for animals included her children’s and grandchildren’s pets as well.

JoNell loved to give to people and feed people. You could never leave her home empty handed or hungry. She and her loved ones experienced many special meals together whether it was simple or something more sophisticated. She could always be counted on for a fresh, hot cup of coffee and her full presence. She truly cared for, was interested in, and loved people, making anyone she interacted with feel like the most special person in the room, including complete strangers.

JoNell eventually had the honor to become a great grandmother to eight. Her warmth, zest for life, and love blessed and continues to bless these children.

In her later life, JoNell used her eye for beauty as she collected art and antiques to refinish. After the death of Bob, JoNell had the honor of traveling to New York with her best friend, Eleanor Harrell, to see Christo and Claud’s The Gates exhibit. This trip was something she always treasured. She often recalled the white snow and the color of the gates, which fostered her love of the color orange, saffron, specifically.

As she continued to age, JoNell loved looking at the sky and trees, always pointing out their beauty. She often reflected on how lucky she’d been to have such a long life that was so full of love, and, until her very last day, she loved the people in her life so well.

She leaves behind her sister, Laverne Myers, her three children: Rebecca Harden (Thomas), Daniel McClernon (Anita) and Elizabeth Becker (Joseph); grandchildren Robert Harden (Pamela), Jessica Womack (Percy III) Joanna John (William), Benjamin Morton (Rebekah Edie), Eli Dampier-McClernon (Nataliia Ponomarenko) and Renee McClernon; great-grandchildren: Colton Harden, Jackson Harden, Percy Womack IV, Luther Womack, Pearl Womack, Oliver John, Callum John, and Oles Ponomarenko and numerous friends, nieces, nephews, and step-grandchildren.

A special thanks to JoNell’s dear friend, Anne Drennan, who was steadfast in her care and love of JoNell and her family throughout the journey of the past five years.

While her family experiences the profound loss of her passing, her presence in their lives and their love for one another is deeper. She was the epitome of a devoted wife, mother, sister, grandmother, daughter, and friend. She was a true caretaker to all that she loved. Indeed, the world is a better place because Jonell was in it, and, even in death, she continues to positively impact it through the lasting legacy of love that she leaves behind. The goodness, love, and laughter she bestowed upon us all was a blessing which we will carry with us always.

JoNell’s memorial service will be held at Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, NC on August 3rd at 3pm. This service will be livestreamed for friends who are unable to attend in person. In lieu of flowers, please consider planting a tree in JoNell’s honor, giving to the Independent Animal Rescue or donating to the Watts Street Baptist Church Capital Fund 

To view the memorial video for JoNell click: HERE