The loss of a mother, wife and community leader hit far too close to home for Waxahachie and the Stevens family Sunday night.
Paul and Jennifer Stevens had just enjoyed a night out on the dimes of their daughters, Sophie and Summer, two days prior. With Jack Johnson tunes still fresh in the minds, the four returned home Friday night from the Toyota Music Factory and picked right back up with their regular day-to-day activities on Saturday and into Sunday evening.
“We went to the Jack Johnson concert with the girls at the Toyota Music Center in Irving [on Friday]. My daughters bought the tickets for us for Christmas. I have always been a Jack Johnson fan. Both of them have been Jack Johnson fans,” Paul recalled. “The song ‘Bubble Toes’ my youngest daughter has loved that since she was a little kid. In fact, she loved it so much she gave it up for Lent. It was a struggle for her not to listen to that song so much.”
The family of four was at a good point in their lives. Paul and Jennifer had recently vacationed for the first time since their honeymoon and were in the midst of planning a move to Rowlett, where Paul is now the deputy city manager.
The two have also enjoyed watching their daughters grow into young women. Over the coming weeks, Sophie will graduate with her master's from Texas Woman's University and Summer with her undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University.
Things changed a little after 6 p.m. Sunday when Paul, the former Waxahachie city manager, returned home from a five-mile run to find Jennifer unresponsive on the floor.
"I called 911, and they talked me through CPR. The police department got there quickly, and the fire department got there very soon after and took over,” said Paul as his voice cracked. “They tried and tried a long time at the hospital. They could not get a pulse or a heartbeat.”
Paul recalled Jennifer felt good that day and had taken a long walk that afternoon. He added she was supposed to teach a waltz for members of the Belles and Beaus that evening at 6 p.m.
Jennifer was pronounced dead at the hospital. The longtime dance instructor, choreographer, owner of Danceworks, wife, and mother of two was 52 years old.
Paul and Jennifer first met while attending the University of North Texas when her sorority held a "singsong" for his fraternity.
"It was a musical deal, and we met during that time,” Paul recalled fondly. “It was kind of funny. I thought that she was stuck up because of the way she would come in and teach people dance lessons and leave. She wasn’t. She was just serious about it.”
Paul shared that a friendship formed, which then lead to dating and eventually almost 28 years of marriage. July would have marked their 29th year of marriage.
He added that Jennifer’s love of dancing started at three-years-old and continued throughout her adult life. Her passion for dance led her to minor in the art form at UNT and major in business with the hopes of opening her studio, which came after the Stevens family moved to Waxahachie.
“When she opened up the studio here it was just a great success. Jennifer always loved dance and being around the kids. Both of our kids danced. Our niece took dance from her also,” Paul remembered. “She was at the point now she was teaching the kids of the people she had taught. That made her feel old, but she enjoyed that too. It was the second generation. She just loved dancing.”
Paul recalled Jennifer's desire to give and to teach led her to work with the Waxahachie High School Theater Department. In this role, Jennifer choreographed productions and taught students how to find their rhythm. The giving continued with Jennifer volunteering with the family's church, First United Methodist of Waxahachie, and the Belles and Beaus program that teaches youth expert life skills.
Paul appreciates the support from the community in this trying time.
“I think that we are all still kinda shocked. I think it will become more real every day,” Paul said. “My daughters have a lot of friends that are at the house. We have got other friends that have been at the house, which has been great. I don’t know where we would be without it. It would be tough.”
Jennifer is remembered for the positive impact she made in the lives of others each day. She could connect with people through her work not only as a dance instructor but also in the roles of teacher, mentor, friend, mother, and wife.
For more than 18 years, Jennifer taught students the art of dance at her studio, Danceworks, in downtown Waxahachie. She shared her passion with students of all ages.
Katie Harwell, a former dance student, remembered Jennifer for not only teaching dance but the life lessons she learned during classes at Danceworks. She even had the "pleasure" of often babysitting Summer.
“She didn’t just teach dance. She taught integrity, responsibility, compassion — the list goes on. I was just messaging with her two weeks ago, and it seems unreal,” posted Harwell to Facebook.
Harwell shared she is praying for the family fervently and grieving with the rest of the community in this loss.
Andy Reynolds, Waxahachie High School theatre director, remembered Jennifer for the tremendous impact she made in lives of countless students. He noted she could always help a student discover a hidden talent.
“She was able to get kids who have never been able to put on a pair of tap shoes to do a whole tap number. Kids who felt like they had no rhythm whatsoever looked like they were ready for Broadway," Reynolds said. "Because of her patience and just how she understood how to teach children of all ages. She just understood kids and the beauty and the art of dance.
"Also, it was not just dance. She was in the business of developing classic young ladies. You always knew a Jennifer kid. She taught them how to be kind. Of course, their parents did too. In a world such as ours, it is nice to have co-parents around.”
Reynolds has directed 29 musicals at Waxahachie High School. Jennifer choreographed 28 of those productions over 15 years. Reynolds shared Jennifer was not an employee of the district, but a person never knew it with love shown to her by students.
“Jennifer was an outstanding citizen of this community. That gave so much to the community in the way of helping raise wonderful, beautiful, and artistic young ladies in this community,” Reynolds noted. “That is immeasurable to me.”
Reynolds added he is heartbroken over the loss and will miss his friend.
The Waxahachie High School drama department is dedicating the remaining of its season to Jennifer’s memory, as well as establishing a scholarship in her honor.
Melissa Ballard worked with Jennifer at First United Methodist of Waxahachie, and through that experience together they became close friends. Ballard added Jennifer was a kind and sweet person who "had a true servants heart towards children through her dance studio, church, and the community."
“She was just all about giving back," Ballard said. "She had a sweet spirit. It showed through her family.”
Kelly Hale, a friend of Jennifer, echoed Ballard's sentiment and remembered the longtime dance teacher as always having "a quite positive spirit about her."
"My son went through Belles and Beaus. She always volunteered her time to teach us the dance that we would do with our sons at Belles and Beaus,” Hale said. “It is a shocking loss. Waxahachie lost one of its finest role models. She was a role model for women on a lot of different levels.”
Hale added that Jennifer's most significant impact could be seen by merely observing the two daughters she has raised into young women.
Sophie, the eldest, recognizes much of the same.
"My mom was my best friend, and I have slowly been turning into her, and I couldn't be more thankful to be her daughter," Sophie said. "She was so caring and empathetic and always put others first."
The visitation for Jennifer Stevens is from 6—8 p.m. Thursday at First United Methodist Church in Waxahachie. The church is located at 505 W. Marvin Avenue in Waxahachie.
The funeral service is at 2 p.m. Friday at the Avenue Church. The Avenue Church is located at 1761 U.S. Highway 77 in Waxahachie.