When Zelda Hoaglan thinks of the late A.W. “Bill” O’Keefe, music might be one of the first thought that comes to mind.

O’Keefe, Hoaglan said, more than anyone else, is responsible for the formation of the Jenkins Choir, which is set to perform at the annual Christmas Luncheon and Festival of Tables, sponsored by the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary, on Dec. 1 at the Great Hall of the First United Methodist Church at 200 W. Sixth Ave.

Ticket information is available by calling Kim Edwards at the Salvation Army corps office at 534-0504.

According to Hoaglan, executive director of the Jenkins Memorial Center and Jenkins Industries, Inc., it was the mid-1990s when O’Keefe was chairman of the Jenkins board and was employed as the manager of operational services at International Paper’s (now Evergreen) Pine Bluff mill.

One summer’s day, she had a call from O’Keefe. Things were not going well at the center, she said. The maintenance man had suffered a heart attack. The assistant director was off recovering from a hip replacement, the air conditioner was not working and she was plunging a toilet at the time of the call. She was not receptive to any ideas about a choir or anything else.

O’Keefe was calling from his car. Unbeknownst to Hoaglan, his passengers were the president of International Paper and then-Sen. David Pryor. O’Keefe was in Texarkana attending a golf tournament sponsored by Opportunities, Inc., an agency, according to its website, “to provide developmental and support services, which assist individuals in attaining a full life in the community” — purposes similar to those of Jenkins.

Opportunities, Inc., had a choir, and Hoaglan said that O’Keefe thought Jenkins should have one, too. He needed a special group for a United Way kick-off event at Jefferson Regional Medical Center, and a Jenkins Choir would fill the bill. Hoaglan said she tried to explain the difficulties with which she was dealing and that there were no students on campus at this time. He was not to be deterred. Finally, Hoaglan said, “We will not be having a choir at JRMC.” She said that his passengers teased him – “We like the way you handled her.”

“I may have won the battle, but not the war,” Hoaglan said. “They got a choir in spite of me.”

Hoaglan set about to find a director and an accompanist. She knew that Janice Wilkes, a special education teacher at Jenkins Secondary at Watson Chapel, could sing like Whitney Houston, had been in her college choir and was in her church choir. “I was drafted,” Wilkes said. She is the only director that the choir has had.

Sherry Laminack, a secretary at the Watson Chapel campus, was the first accompanist. When she retired and moved to Northwest Arkansas, she was succeeded by Sue Cox, a special education teacher on the Watson Chapel campus. “I also got drafted because I was one of the few who could read music and play a keyboard,” Cox said, even though she probably hadn’t touched a keyboard in 20 years.

In the beginning days of the choir, they were also helped by the Rev. Michael Williams, pastor of Family Time Church, Hoaglan said.

All of the choir members are either clients of Jenkins or Jenkins staff.

Even though O’Keefe acted as if he knew nothing about music, this choir was his dream and he pursued it, Hoaglan said. He once took her to the office of Tommy May, who at the time was president and chief executive officer of Simmons First National Bank and Simmons First Corp., and asked him for $100,000 for the choir. With this funding, they could purchase a bus and tour. “Music meant so much to Mr. O’Keefe, and he had seen the choir in Texarkana,” Hoaglan said.

The choir is not only an opportunity to sing, but also a very important learning experience, Hoaglan said. It is a team activity, which teaches the participants to work together. They learn to believe in themselves and others. There are a few members who don’t talk, but can sing. A few had sung in church choir; however, no experience is required, just the desire to make a joyful noise. The only reason they could not participate would be behavior. And O’Keefe wanted everyone who wanted to sing a solo to have the opportunity.

The choir also helps develop socialization and memory skills, Wilkes said. “They didn’t know that they couldn’t clap for themselves. We have to teach them not to. We don’t have behavior problems. They love it.”

One young man is autistic and has perfect pitch, Cox said. Some can’t carry on a conversation but sing perfectly. Music is therapy.

And perhaps the person who sings the least has the biggest smile, Hoaglan said.

Hoaglan said that Wilkes does gestures to help them remember the words. Sometimes people cry when they hear them, and the choir members don’t understand and want to know what’s wrong.

“Each Christmas season, one song moves me to tears,” Cox said, “and it’s a different song each year.”

According to Cox and Wilkes, they’ve performed in a variety of places, including nursing homes, Rotary Club of Pine Bluff meetings, the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary’s Christmas luncheon, the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, Arkansas Capitol, Pine Bluff Arsenal, Pine Bluff Christian Women’s Connection meeting, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, an adult day care, Old Town Christmas festivities and the opening ceremonies of the International Little League Tournament. O’Keefe thought everyone should hear them.

This year’s bookings include all local nursing homes, Salvation Army Auxiliary, Rotary Club and JRMC’s Christmas tree lighting, which, Wilkes said, she can guarantee will be a hot chocolate night. Most engagements are during the day since they use center vans for transportation.

The choir’s first performance was at the Volunteers in Public Schools’ annual recognition luncheon in about 1995, Cox said. At the time, there were 10 to 15 members. Now they are 45 strong. The Salvation Army Auxiliary luncheon is their longest continuous gig, Cox said.

The Jenkins Choir has been performing at the luncheon for about two decades, according to an Auxiliary spokesman. It is the highlight of the event. This group is awesome, inspirational, full of great singers and always gets a standing ovation.

Their dress for performing during the holidays always includes a colorful T-shirt. The first was given to them by the International Paper mill. This year’s were provided by JRMC, Wilkes said.

She and Cox select the music, which they also arrange to meet the needs of the choir members, since most are non-readers, Wilkes said. There are suggestions from the choir’s “head lead person,” as well as other choir members.

In preparation for their upcoming performances, during October and November, they practice at 1 p.m. every other day, and they practice in the spring for graduation, Cox said.

“When you invest this many years in a project, it is a part of your life,” Cox said. “We are the ones who get nervous before a performance.”

Last year, Lew McMahan was added as a guitar accompanist. He is a resident of Chapel Pines, a part of the Jenkins program. He and Cox also act as roadies, making sure that everything is set up before performances.

Like the director and accompanist, many of the choir members have long associations with the group.

A 10-year veteran, Jesilyn Dumas said she joined in high school because “I like to be heard. If there is one thing I like to do is sing.” She will perform solos during “Frosty the Snowman,”” Silver Bells” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

Another soloist and long-time member, joining when the choir was first organized, is Rebecca Lindsay. She joined, she said, because she likes to be with friends and make new ones. She likes to be in the community, singing in nursing homes and for the Salvation Army Auxiliary and the United Way.

She fills in if anybody is absent, Cox said. She knows all the words and all the parts.

Lindsay also sings in the Oakland Heights Missionary Baptist Church Choir. She will be a featured soloist during “White Christmas,” “Mary, Did You Know?,” “Frosty,” “ Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

Kaylan Martin became a choir member about eight years ago when he was in high school. He also sings in a church choir. He joined the choir so he could sing and be with friends. He will have solos during “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

“I like singing in the choir. I like going out in the community,” said Charmelle Parker, as her reasons for being in the Jenkins Choir for at least 10 years. She will be featured as a soloist during “Joy to the World.”

It is obvious that there is a mutual affection among the choir members and the director and accompanist.

“The director and accompanist are beautiful,” Dumas said.

“They have brought us a long way,” Lindsay said.

“Mr. O’Keefe would be proud,” Hoaglan added.