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The pandemic has claimed around 12,000 North Carolinian lives since March 24, 2020. To honor them, we're telling eight life stories – a cross-section of our Carolina neighbors – that ended too soon due to COVID.

‘Loving, Supportive, Stubborn:’ Jane Klein Remembered For Irish Festival, Impact On Family

Jane-Klein.JPG
Natalia Polanco
/
For WUNC

Jane Klein was notoriously sassy.

“I grew up knowing Jane as the crazy New York aunt," said Heather Pelkey, a lifelong family friend of Klein. "Who would yell ‘Yo broad!’ across the bar... and would light up everything."

Klein was also incredibly kind and caring. Many people, including Pelkey, knew Klein as ‘Aunt Jane’, biological connection or not.

“You couldn't get away from her without getting smothered with love and affection and hugs,” Pelkey said.

Klein passed away from COVID-19 on Jan. 30 at a nursing home in Fayetteville. She was six days away from her 68th birthday. Originally from Long Island, Klein’s family and friends say they will remember her for always supporting them, and for helping create the North Texas Irish Festival, one of the largest Irish festivals in the United States.

‘A second mom’

When Christin Niles-Tracy was 13 years old, her mother passed away. Her mother’s sister Sharon Niles took custody of her, and Klein, the third sister, unofficially did too. Speaking over Zoom from her home in Fayetteville, Niles-Tracy said Klein was always there for her.

Jane Klein.jpg
Klein dressed up as a unicorn for a Halloween party in the 1980s. Her family says she loved unicorns.

“She always wanted us to be with her or around if she could. She always wanted to be involved,” Niles-Tracy said smiling. “It's something that is rare these days, I think."

Caden Heald, Niles-Tracy’s son, says he saw Klein as essentially his grandmother. He remembers staying at Klein’s house when he was younger when his mom was out of town.

“It was always a really good experience. Just going there and spending the night,” Heald said.

His mother turned to him and prompted him.

“Wouldn’t you cook with her? Or bake with her?”

“Yeah!” he said, snapping his fingers as he remembered. “We would bake cheesecake.”

Pelkey shares fond memories of Klein too. When she was around 9-years-old, Pelkey remembers Klein pulling her up on a stage at the North Texas Irish Festival and placing a wicker basket over her head as part of a traditional storytelling act.

“I'll never forget [that],” Pelkey said laughing. “Watching how much [Klein] loved the festival and loved the music is a big reason why my kids are now growing up in it.”

‘Her pride and joy’

In the early 1980s, Klein met Curt Marcus when she moved to Dallas, Texas. The two became best friends and helped start the North Texas Irish Festival.

“They ended up going to a bar one night and coming across an Irish community that they both became founding fathers of,” Pelkey said over Zoom from her living room in Hurst, a suburb of Dallas. Marcus was her biological uncle.

The North Texas Irish Festival is now one of the biggest events of its kind in the U.S. It’s the second largest event held at the Texas State Fairgrounds, only behind the Texas State Fair.

“Jane would spend weeks out at the festival grounds making sure that everything was fine,” Pelkey said. “Going around to every vendor during the weekend. Back then it was you know, a handful of vendors, whereas now we have over 400. Jane was the catalyst that started finding the basis of what we have now.”

Pelkey says Marcus and Klein would travel across the U.S. to scout musicians to play at the event. Several Grammy-nominated and award-winning artists have since performed at the festival.

This year, the festival was held online because of the pandemic. 24,000 people from 18 different countries virtually joined the event.

“It was her baby,” Pelkey said. “She literally spent thousands of dollars of her own money to go find these groups and build our name… and the reputation that we now stand very proud on.”

To further prove her point, Pelkey held up a jacket that used to belong to Klein. Niles-Tracy sent the jacket to Pelkey after Klein’s death. It’s a pink and green bomber jacket that says ‘North Texas Irish Festival, 1993’ on the back in big cursive letters.

“That's the 10th anniversary of the North Texas Irish Festival,” Pelkey said. “She still had this in her closet, if that tells you anything.”

Klein spent about 15 years working as a festival director, and many more years as a volunteer. She left Texas and moved back to New York in the mid 90s, then eventually came to North Carolina to be closer to Niles-Tracy.

Gone too soon

In 2013, Klein began experiencing a series of strokes that led to vascular dementia. Christin Niles-Tracy became her power of attorney because Klein’s husband was unable to care for her, and she never had kids of her own. Klein was placed in a nursing home in Fayetteville in 2015.

“She was not able to care for herself in the matter of… cooking or basic hygiene,” said Niles-Tracy. “She wasn't able to remember some family members or friends. The only time we could talk to her is in-person.”

The last time Niles-Tracy saw Klein was the first week of March 2020. Then, the pandemic hit.

"It's been hard. There's nothing I can do to change what happened."

“She probably felt like I had abandoned her, and in reality I hadn't,” Niles-Tracy remembers. “It was pretty devastating because I couldn't explain to her why I wasn't there.”

Klein received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on January 13. A week later, she tested positive for COVID-19. The nursing home reassured Niles-Tracy that Klein was going to be fine. But 10 days after Klein tested positive, Niles-Tracy received different news around 3:30 a.m.

“They called me and told me that she wasn't doing well. They didn't think she was going to make it,” said Niles-Tracy. “They were allowing me to come down to do a window visit. I was hysterical. I was banging on the window trying to get her attention because I didn't know how bad it was.”

Niles-Tracy finally got permission to go inside, and was able to spend 30 minutes with her aunt before she passed away.

“It's been hard,” said Niles-Tracy, back in her living room. She cleared her throat and shifted slightly in her chair, which creaked loudly. “It really has been hard. There's nothing I can do to change what happened. “

Heald said he’s still having trouble processing Klein’s death.

“It all happened really quickly,” Heald said. “It just kind of caught me off guard. [But] I know that my mom and my aunt Jane were really close. So whatever I'm feeling, I honestly know that she's having it rougher than I.”

While Niles-Tracy and Heald have each other for comfort, Pelkey relies on the community from the North Texas Irish Festival for strength and support.

“She built this family and she doesn't even know how much she did,” Pelkey said through tears. “She doesn't know how much is still in the future for what she started.”

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