Joyce Ann Whitehead, cherished wife and beloved mother and grandmother, 90, passed away after a short hospital stay on August 12, 2023, of a spontaneous subdural hematoma. Up until that moment, she was living an active, healthy, fulfilling life with her husband of 66 years, Dr. Richard E. Whitehead, in the Prairie Village home they shared for over five decades. Joyce, an exceptionally kind, generous, and thoughtful woman–known for her inquiring mind, winning ways, and welcoming smile (not to mention her legendary Caesar salad and addiction to true crime stories)—had amassed a large circle of friends from all different walks of her life and over many, many years.
The devoted and engaged mother of five children and loving and enthusiastic grandmother to twelve grandchildren was born in Benton Harbor, Michigan, on 16 May 1933 to Lowran Cleaveland, a schoolteacher, master gardener and angler, and his wife, Viola, an exceptional home cook and accomplished baker. At the age of five, Joyce, her younger brother, George, and her parents moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she grew up playing the piano, nurturing what would become her lifelong love affair with books and reading, and spending the summers working on her grandparents’ fruit farm picking strawberries and cherries alongside the German POWs assigned to the farm for the duration of World War II. Her grandparents had such admiration for her facility with numbers that Joyce was entrusted from an early age with keeping track of the hours worked, and pay owed, to all the farmhands. This experience instilled in her a quiet confidence and formidable work ethic, and inspired her love of gardens and flowers, already sparked by her father’s prowess with gardening, particularly growing roses.
Joyce attended Grand Rapids South High School. Given her background and intellectual curiosity, it came as no surprise that Joyce was an excellent student, earning a full academic scholarship to the University of Michigan. Her major in Chemistry led to her first job upon graduation as a medical technologist at the University Hospital. It was there that she met her future husband, Dick, a student at the medical school. Their marriage and Dick’s career would take her first to California, where she had all five of their children (four girls and one boy), and then to Kansas, where she spent the rest of her days.
Joyce whole-heartedly embraced her roles as wife, mother, volunteer, and friend. With a naturally sociable temperament, Joyce sought out like-minded spirits in a colorful collection of organizations and groups, ranging from the whimsical, such as the Twins Club (her last two children are fraternal twins) or the Millard Fillmore Club (for like-minded procrastinators), to the more serious clubs which reflected her deep commitment to a variety of causes—organizations as diverse as the Johnson County Young Matrons, the Kansas City Zoo docents, the League of Women Voters, Temporary Lodging for Children, the Kansas City Symphony League, and the Medical Auxiliary, to name just a few. Joyce emerged as a leader, which often put a gavel in her hand as she served as president. Her commitment to volunteerism was a positive example for those around her, but especially for her children and grandchildren, who were both awed and inspired by the high standard she set for a life devoted to service.
With a passion for politics, Joyce was nominated to run for the position of Republican Committeewoman for Ward Five, a position she won handily and held proudly for many years. Even that position, however, paled beside those involving her children and husband. While Joyce was the president of the PTA for both Briarwood Elementary School and Shawnee Mission East High School, she still found time to be a Girl Scout Leader and a cheerleader sponsor for her daughters. It was the clubs that she shared with her husband, however, which were the most precious to her. Joyce and Dick’s standing Thursday night date night as young parents became Saturday nights cutting a rug in their later years as members of the Moonlighters and other dance groups.
Everyone who knew Joyce knew she loved books and reading. Those same books cemented lifelong friendships in the book clubs by which she set her calendar, the longest running one spanning 45 years and 450 books, always analyzed and debated over a lively dinner at a member’s home. At the time of Joyce’s passing, she belonged to three book clubs in Kansas and one in Long Boat Key, Florida, where she and Dick spent the winter for the last 26 years near Dick’s brother Bob, sister-in-law June, and their family.
Joyce loved to travel, and her adventures at home and abroad with Dick and the children became the stories that grew into family mythology. Hiking in hailstorms, lost amidst boulders on mountainsides, taking in the pyramids on the backs of camels: these formed the foundation of Whitehead collective memory. After her children left home, Joyce continued her travels over several continents with her husband and friends. One of her greatest thrills was tracking lowland gorillas with the Kansas City Zoo leadership and other ardent supporters.
But Joyce’s consuming love of animals was not limited to the exotic; she good-naturedly indulged her children with a private menagerie of St. Bernards, Lhasa Apsos, cats, cockatiels, parakeets, fish, gerbils, hermit crabs and chameleons. Similarly, her favorite trips were not the exotic, but the domestic ones. Joyce traveled to all her children’s and grandchildren’s graduations; she never missed a high school, college, or graduate school graduation until Covid interfered. After Covid, one of Joyce’s great joys was attending the weddings of two of her grandchildren. She was looking forward to attending two more in the coming year.
Joyce traveled the world and made dear friends over the decades, but her greatest joys took place in the confines of her home shared with Dick for over 56 years. Filled with books, photos of children and grandchildren, plants and flowers, and treasures both from around the world and around the corner, her home was a testament to a life well-lived and served as the setting for her legacy: her children and her grandchildren. For decades, her home has been filled with the chatter of children, the laughter of grandchildren, the company of dear friends, and the daily joy of just sitting with Dick and reading the paper at the breakfast table. Her family struggles to imagine a world without her.
Joyce was laid to rest on Thursday under a carpet of red roses near a majestic tree in a private family ceremony at Leavenworth National Cemetery, a place reserved for those who served in the military and their spouses. There the beautiful rolling hills house row upon rows of identical, simple white headstones. Joyce’s will simply read: Cherished Wife, Beloved Mother.
Joyce is survived by her husband, Richard Earl Whitehead; her daughters and sons-in-law, Nancy and Richard Whitney, David Tohir, Barbara Whitehead and Dan Shannon, Carolyn and William Parkerson; and her son, Richard Whitehead; her grandchildren Kathryn, Meghan and Lucy Whitney, Emily Tohir McCormick and her husband Joe, Brian Tohir and his wife Paige, Chris Tohir, John and Carmine Shannon, Andrew, James, Grace and Julia Parkerson; and a lively crew of nieces and nephews. Joyce’s daughter, Kathryn Tohir, preceded her in death.
A celebration of Joyce’s life will be held on 21 October 2023 at 2:00 at Johnson County Funeral Chapel and Memorial Gardens. All are welcome. In lieu of flowers, please send donations in Joyce Whitehead’s name to support Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Ovarian Cancer Research dedicated to the memory of Joyce’s daughter, Kathryn Tohir. Donations can be made through the following link http://mskcc.convio.net/goto/kathryntohirmemorial or via check made payable to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Attn: Brooke Bifulco, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Office of Development, PO Box 27106, New York, NY 10087.