We’re all better because we knew Mary Jo Del Vero; a remembrance of my friend

There are some passings that cut through our community like a knife. This is one of them.

Mary Jo Del Vero died early this morning, and like everyone in Livingston County who knew and loved her – which seems to be everyone in Livingston County – I’m in shock. It’s hard to wrap our minds around this.

Mary Jo was an amazing actress and singer with an incredible voice who was a mainstay with the Community Theatre of Howell and other performing arts groups in the county. She was an elementary school teacher and drama director for the Hartland Community Schools. She was part of one of the best-known families in Livingston County.

She was also my dear friend. She was a dear friend to my whole family. And we’ll miss her forever.

Mary Jo Del Vero in the Community Theatre of Howell’s production of “The Sound of Music.”

Mary Jo passed away after a short hospitalization, leaving behind a stunned group of family, friends and fans. Facebook has been awash today with hundreds of loving remembrances of our dear friend. We’re all stunned and sad, and we can’t believe that Mary Jo is gone.

I first met Mary Jo in 1995, when I went to the Mill Pond Theater in Brighton to do a review for the newspaper of a show the Livingston Players were doing called “Talking With.” It was a collection of monologues by an all-woman cast, and Mary Jo was one of the performers. She was remarkable.

The following year, we were in a play together with the Community Theatre of Howell, “Guys and Dolls.” I played Nathan Detroit, my wife Kathy was Adelaide, and my mom, Vera Cunningham, was the director. Mary Jo was one of the “Hot Box Girls.”

She became close friends with my entire family during that show, and we remained that way until the end. Kathy directed her a few years later in CTH’s “Anne of Green Gables,” and when I ran for state representative in 2002, Mary Jo was one of our best volunteers.

My whole family was heavily involved with CTH – including my sister Kim and my niece and nephew, Leslie and Adam – and we all loved Mary Jo. And like all of you who knew and loved her, we’re all aching inside right now.

Out of my entire family, though, Mary Jo was by far the closest to my mom, Vera (who passed away last year). They adored each other. My mom was a longtime director at CTH, and she directed Mary Jo in some of her greatest roles, including Maria in “The Sound of Music.”

Mary Jo’s musical talent was amazing – I mean, truly amazing – but what Vera loved most about working with MJ was her passion. And that was so true. Everyone who knew Mary Jo will tell you that nobody had more passion for theater. She loved every aspect of it, and she poured every bit of herself into every role she played.

My favorite Mary Jo role wasn’t a musical, though. It was in a play called “Lost in Yonkers” that CTH did in 1997. It’s one of the only times that Mary Jo and Vera actually got to share the stage in a show, and it was incredible.

Vera Cunningham (right) and Mary Jo Del Vero in “Lost in Yonkers.”

Vera was Grandma Kurnitz, a brutally overbearing woman who lived at home with her sweet but mentally dim daughter, Bella (played by Mary Jo). They were both wonderful in that show, but I’m telling you, Mary Jo’s performance as Bella might be the single greatest performance I’ve ever seen on a Livingston County stage. I can still remember vividly the way she made something of every line, every gesture and every movement.

She truly was the queen of the theater in Livingston County, and from my seat, that was her finest moment.

Mary Jo was an elementary school teacher in Hartland, and I know that every student and every parent through the years adored her, too. She eventually started directing the plays at Hartland High School, and again, she poured every bit of herself into every show. It’s been both heartbreaking and heartwarming to read all the reminiscences on Facebook from her Hartland students today. They just loved her.

By the way, thank you to everyone – from CTH, from Howell High School, from Hartland, from the Dio theater in Pinckney – thank you to everyone who has been sharing their Mary Jo stories on Facebook today. I’ve read every one of them, and they’ve helped me gain an even greater insight into what made her so special.

What I’ll remember most about my friend Mary Jo, though, and what I always treasured most about her, was her sense of humor. It was world-class. Mary Jo could fill an auditorium with her laugh. When she heard something funny, she didn’t just laugh. She LAUGHED. And you can’t help but feel good about yourself when you’re around someone like that.

Our hearts are broken today, all of us who knew and loved Mary Jo Del Vero. My heart breaks for her wonderful family, and my heart breaks for the students she’s leaving behind. Mary Jo was one of a kind, and we’re all so much better because we knew her.

You know, the best that any of us can do during our time here is to make a difference in the lives of others.

Mary Jo Del Vero did exactly that. Rest in peace, my friend.

Mary Jo Del Vero in “Carousel.”

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