Jo Brans, a bookworm from rural Mississippi who would follow her love for literature to an accomplished career as a professor, journalist and author, died September 25 in New York City at the age of 85.
Funeral services will be held at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City on Saturday, October 12, at 10:30 a.m.
She was born Mary Jo Reid on December 23, 1933, in Pittsboro, MS., in the same house in which her father had been born. She was the eldest of three children born to Winton Samuel Reid and Sammie Harlan Reid. Jo attended Belhaven College in Jackson, where she was greatly influenced by her English literature professor, Miss Ellene Ransom, another southern lady with a keen intellect and love of language.
Jo began her career teaching middle school students in Houston, Texas. In Houston, Jo met Billy Mack Porterfield, a newspaper reporter whom she married in 1958. They had two children, Erin, born in 1960, and Winton, born in 1964.
IBilly’s newspaper career took the young family from Houston to Detroit and then to Chicago before they settled back in Austin, Texas, in the late 1960s, where Jo received a master’s degree from the University of Texas.
In 1970, she accepted a faculty position in the English Department at Southern Methodist University, where she would teach for the next 14 years. She was popular with her students, often inviting her lecture classes over for dinners of “freshman casserole,” and conversations that would stretch well into the night.
Jo and Billy divorced in 1973, and in 1974 she married Willem Brans, at the time a fellow professor at SMU. They remained married the rest of her life.
In 1976, Jo read that author Saul Bellow was scheduled to speak at SMU’s Literary Festival and contacted him to request an interview, which he granted. The interview was Bellow’s first since the announcement of his Nobel Prize for Literature. That interview, published in the Southwest Review, SMU’s literary quarterly, would be awarded the John H. McGinnis Award for nonfiction in 1977.
This began a tradition at the Festival that would last nearly a decade. Each year, Jo would interview several writers to be featured at the Festival and publish the interviews in the Southwest Review. Among the writers she interviewed were Bellow, Margaret Atwood, Donald Barthelme, Erskine Caldwell, John Cheever, Margaret Drabble, William Gass, Iris Murdoch, D.M. Thomas, and her childhood idol, Eudora Welty.
During her tenure at SMU, Jo also served as the director of the annual SMU-in-Oxford Adult Seminar. The SMU student body voted to give her the Outstanding Professor Award for the 1981-82 Academic Year.
In 1984, she gave up her tenured position at SMU to concentrate on writing. She and Willem moved to New York City, and what followed were four nonfiction works: Listen to the Voices (1988), a collection of the previously published interviews with writers; Mother, I Have Something to Tell You (1987); Take Two (1989); and Feast Here Awhile (1993).
Her work was also published in a number of newspapers and magazines, including Woman’s Day and D Magazine, where she was a longtime contributing editor and monthly columnist. She wrote about family, and food and travel, and everything under the sun.
Jo lived her life with grace and a positive outlook. She loved living in New York where she made many friends who were as endeared to her as she was to them.
Jo and Willem joined the Episcopal Church in 1989, first attending All Saints Church, where Jo was a lector, member of the altar guild, and head of the fellowship committee. Starting in the mid-1990s, they attended Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. There Jo and Willem co-chaired the annual appeal in 2001-2003, and Jo was a lector, on the Welcome Committee, and a volunteer for the weekly Soup Kitchen.
Jo served on the board of the United Neighbors of East Midtown, a local community improvement organization, and was a member of the development committee in addition to working weekly with UNEM’s elderly clients.
She enjoyed celebrating her southern roots, and under the influence of her first cousin once-removed Martha Jo Wallace, Jo was persuaded that the history of families is the most faithful history of our country, joining the New York City Chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Daughters of the American Revolution, for which she served as Chaplain for many years.
Jo loved to travel, a pleasure shared by Willem and her family. From annual summer visits to Maine, to international destinations related to Willem’s career, to family vacations in Arkansas, Texas, and points South, to enjoying New York City to the fullest, Jo and Willem cherished exploring the world around them. Memories that last a lifetime were created for family during their annual trips to Texas -- for their granddaughters’ life milestones, holidays, and week-long summer trips.
She was preceded in death by her parents, Winton Samuel Reid and Sammie Harlan Reid; and by her brothers, Winton Samuel Reid, Jr. and Kenneth Harlan Reid.
She is survived by her beloved husband of 45 years, Willem Brans of New York City; daughter, Erin Porterfield of Dallas, Texas; son, Winton Porterfield and wife, Kim, of San Marcos, Texas; and four granddaughters: Bailey Devine of Fort Worth, Texas; Zane Porterfield Liston of New York City; Carlie Porterfield of London, England; and Sara Jo Porterfield of Houston, Texas.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorials be made in Jo’s name to Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York; or the Saint Thomas Choir School.