In remembrance of Jay

Suzette Kendall honoring late husband by helping others

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Jay and Suzette Kendall, in a photo taken about two weeks before Jay was killed by a distracted driver in May 2014 (Courtesy of Suzette Kendall)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Suzette was set up on a blind date at a karaoke place in Pensacola, Florida. A mutual friend arranged for her and Jay to meet, and the sparks flew right away. After meeting on that date in July 2005, they became Mr. and Mrs. Jay Kendall the following November. They soon found themselves transferred to Vinemont, Alabama.

Jay worked for the postal service and Vinemont is where they needed him to serve as postmaster. He quickly became an active member in the community and loved his role as referee and umpire for baseball and football. He called games on all levels, from the youngest leagues to high school games. Being a strong role model was important.

The Kendalls soon opened their own karaoke place, J&S Karaoke Place in Hanceville. On April 2 of this year, it will celebrate 11 years in business.

“He was a deejay for our karaoke and he also worked at Wal-Mart,” remembered Suzette. “He worked his little butt off.”

When Suzette met Jay, she had been experiencing some health problems, and she said he was like her own knight in shining armor, sharing, “He took care of me and took care of all my problems. He took on my four kids and helped them out. This man was amazing!”

Close family friend Brandi Gipson said of Jay, “Any time anybody needed Jay, he was there. No questions asked. He and his wife would help anybody they met and treated everyone like family.”

On the morning of May 21, 2014, Jay was called to help at the post office in Hanceville. He jumped on his motorcycle in Vinemont and headed down U.S. Highway 31. Near the intersection of Golf Course Road, a car traveling north suddenly jumped the median, striking Jay and killing him instantly. Suzette and one of her sons actually passed the crash scene that morning and didn’t realize who was involved.

Jay was struck by a 17-year-old driver who was distracted as he Skyped with friends on his phone. In an instant, Jay was gone, and Suzette’s world was shattered.

The man Suzette described as “a kid at heart,” whose favorite movie was “Happy Feet,” also collected elephants and was retired from the Navy.

Said his wife, “He was a chief in the Navy and served 22 years.”

A purple cross is located at the intersection where Jay was killed that terrible morning.

In court, Suzette was able to address the juvenile driver at the wheel of the car that killed Jay.

She explained, “I had written this whole letter out and read it in front of him. I told the judge what kind of person Jay was, and I told the judge that I don’t want to see (him) go to jail and rot where he plays cards and hangs out with the wrong crowd. I wanted him to make something of his life. I don’t know if I could have stomached it, but I would have liked for him to go with me to talk to others about distracting driving.’” 

Suzette said she felt his testimony would have had a great impact on young people who heard his story.

“He wouldn’t do it,” she said.

The judge allowed the young man to leave the courtroom that day as long as he, according to Suzette, passed drug and alcohol tests, earned his GED and found a job.

She shared, “I had three or four months when I didn’t know if I would still be here. I had sunk that low and it wasn’t good. I didn’t know if I was going to come out of it.” Suzette’s daughter said to her mom, “He killed Jay, he didn’t kill you.” That’s when Suzette became determined to try and create something positive after the tragedy.

Suzette is hoping to get Jay’s Law passed in Montgomery.

“I want to make the law stiffer. I want to make it a fine that they can’t afford, that they have to think twice, that if they grab their phone they will lose (everything), and (they) put it down,” she said. “I want to make it where if they do get in an accident and kill somebody and the (victim’s) family goes to counseling, I want them to have to go with them so they can see the damage they have done to that family, to see the grief and pain they are going through.” 

Suzette said she wants stiff fines and loss of licenses for those driving distracted.

“I don’t want it to be too easy for them,” she said. “I want it to be hard!”

Suzette is working with Cullman’s state legislative delegation and other members of the community to push for Jay’s Law. She and her group, Jay’s Legacy, have visited Montgomery and other places bringing awareness to the terrible consequences of distracted driving. She also started a nonprofit called Hands on the Wheel. Due to a clerical error that is currently being addressed, Hands on the Wheel is trying to regain its 501(c)(3) status.

Hands on the Wheel has created the Jay Kendall Memorial Scholarship at Wallace State Community College. Money from the yearly concession sales at J&S Karaoke are used to fund the scholarship.

“We get to help a student there, and we just try to do a lot of things to make a difference to people,” said Suzette. “I mean, that’s the way Jay would have wanted it. That’s the kind of person Jay was.”

Jay’s Legacy has started a new fundraiser to help in its mission to advocate for Jay’s Law. The group is currently collecting new and gently used shoes with a goal of collecting 2,500 pairs of shoes for families in developing countries.

Explained Brandi, “We are so passionate about these fundraisers. All of this is going into the Hands on the Wheel organization for the scholarship and all her trips to Montgomery to get these laws passed.”

Suzette added, “We have a lot of good people working with me on this. I have a great little team. I’d like to thank Michelle, Mo, Brandi, Jeff, Sherry, Betty and Harless.”

“We are collecting the shoes and we will get a check for the shoes collected to go toward Hands on the Wheel,” Brandi said. “The shoes we collect will go to (developing) countries so their people can have shoes to work and start businesses and help better themselves as well. It’s a win/win for everybody.”

Add Suzette, “I want something good to come out of this. Between what we are doing and throwing ourselves into what we do in trying to help other people and other people trying to make a difference, I just feel Jay encouraging me saying, ‘I’m proud of you keep going.’ It’s a good feeling. If you had told me 10 years that I’d be doing this, I would have called you a liar. I would have said that I have my husband and we’ll grow old together. Never in a million years did I think I would be doing this now. I wouldn’t wish this upon anybody.”

Those wanting to donate shoes can do so at J&S Karaoke, located at 10303 U.S. Highway 31 S in Hanceville, Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m.-2 a.m. For more information, email evolutionnonprofit2020@gmail.com or suzettekendall@aol.com. Members of the team can also pick up donations.

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Courtesy of Brandi Gipson
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Christy Perry

christy@cullmantribune.com