The story of Joan Velsmid is simple. It begins – and ends – with her family.
A second generation American, Joan grew up in South Jersey, in the middle of four kids, an older brother and sister, and a younger sister. Her father, a veteran of World War II, was a self-made man. Mothering was full-time for her mom, who partnered with her father to create a close, loving home.
“It was a charmed, charmed childhood,” she says. “That’s why one of my favorite quotes is when Mother Teresa says, ‘You want to strive for world peace? Go home and love your family first.’”
Her father’s parents met while working for a wealthy New York family. Her Scandinavian grandfather was a chauffeur. Her grandmother was a domestic. They moved to Camden, N.J., when they married. When her grandfather died suddenly, Joan’s grandmother opened a delicatessen and her father, who was 11 or 12 at the time, helped her with the business and his two younger siblings.
“My dad never went to college because he helped his mother,” Joan explains. “Then he went off to war.”
When he returned, he started a successful business selling Army surplus materials. M&E Marine Supply in Collingswood, N.J. supported her family and kept her father and brother busy for half a century.
Joan’s mother was a constant support for her children. “She’d say, ‘Joan, anything you want to do you can do.’”
Joan attended Catholic schools. She loved fashion and wanted to “hit the ground running” when she graduated from high school, but her parents persuaded her to further her education.
Always be yourself. Be humble and surround yourself with people who are willing to share their gifts and talents joyfully. Life is short, enjoy the ride and volunteer with a passion. – Joan Velsmid
“You’re going to go,” they said, “even if you go for two years you’re going to go.”
Mt. Aloysius, a Catholic college in Crescent, Penn., was a compromise. There she earned a two-year degree in fashion merchandising. She went on to receive a bachelors in business from Lesley University.
“So I didn’t want to go to school, but then I ended up going back and getting more education,” she said. And she put that education to work.
After college, Joan began her career as an assistant buyer at Macy’s in the Bamberger’s Division1974. She became department manager of women’s accessories at Bamberger’s in Springfield, Penn., a suburb of Philadelphia.
From there, she became an assistant buyer and then one of the first women to buy men’s clothing and sportswear. She’d travel to Southeast Asia twice a year to choose fabrics and meet with manufacturers. Twice a year she’d be at fashion shows in Milan to see what colors and fabrics would be trending in 18 months.
“It was fun, a lot of fun,” she says. “I saw the world.”
Joan went on to become a store manager for May Company’s G. Fox Division. Eventually, she became the store manager of Lord & Taylor’s 5th Avenue store in New York City where she oversaw 3,000 employees and watched the famous Christmas windows being built.
“It was awesome,” she says. “It was like running Walt Disney World. I can tell you there wasn’t a day that didn’t go by that we didn’t have celebrities there shopping. Broadway stars, TV stars, it was the place to buy your dresses and your cosmetics and your shoes. It was incredible.”
While at G. Fox, she also earned a masters in organizational behavior.
When May Company decided that all 12 of its existing New Jersey stores should be converted to Lord & Taylor, and built four new ones, she was promoted to regional director of stores for New Jersey, Philadelphia. The region even included a store in Atlanta’s Phipps Plaza. Sixteen store managers and more than 5,000 employees were under her direction.
At an industry function in the mid-80s, Joan met Michael Velsmid, who at the time was Director of Stores for the hundred-plus-year-old Jordan Marsh at their headquarters in Boston. They began dating. The relationship became more serious when Michael moved from Boston to Princeton to become president of Lenox China Retail Division. The couple married in 1990.
One day in 1992, he came home and said, “Do you want to move to Atlanta?”
West Point-Pepperell (now West Point Stevens) was recruiting him to run their retail division.
“I just wasn’t ready for that,” Joan says, “but here we are.””
She resigned from her 20-year career and came here in 1993, “crying my eyes out,” with her husband, two dogs, and nothing to do.
“I was lost,” she says.
First on the agenda, though, was finding her way to Holy Trinity.
“I have to have my Catholic church.”
Following the trajectory of Fayette County, things were hopping at Holy Trinity. From the pulpit, Joan heard an appeal for teachers.
“I heard them saying we have so many students, but we don’t have enough teachers. Won’t you please consider being a teacher, sharing your gifts, your knowledge?”
She had attended Catholic school from kindergarten through college.
“So I say, ‘How can I not?’ I’m not doing anything. I can share that gift.”
She introduced herself to Mary Ann Cox, Holy Trinity’s Director of Religious Education, and began teaching fourth and fifth grade on Wednesday afternoons. Classes were about an hour, and it took her 90 minutes to prepare.
Now, she had filled two and a half hours of her week.
This deceptively small step began Joan’s drive to look for what else was missing in our community and to fill the gap.
In a growing market, Joan decided real estate would make a good second career. So she contacted the Board of Realtors and asked “How do you get a real estate license in this state?”
They let her know there are schools around the area, but that there was a new program which allowed you to get a real estate license online.
“We’d love to have somebody test this,” she was told. “This was prior to owning a PC, so I said, ‘Where would I go for that?’ And they said, ‘Come down to the board office. We’ll set you up.’”
So she spent a few hours in the Fayette County Board of Realtors office two or three days a week, finished the work, and passed the test the first time. In 1994, Joan was the first person in Fayette County to earn a real estate license online.
She chose to work with Bullard Realty because she wanted to work for someone who owned the business. “I had always worked for corporate America,” Joan explains. “I wanted to try small.”
While she was studying for her real estate license, she was also missing Broadway.
She saw an article about auditions for “Showtime on the Showboat” at the Peachtree City Recreation Center. Having studied theater in high school and college, she decided to try out.
“I’m thinking it’s the Broadway musical Showboat,” she recalls. “So I get all dolled up and get down there and say, ‘Where is the musical accompaniment? Where is everything?’”
Joan earned a part as a singing chrysanthemum and made lifelong friends in the show. Subsequently, she founded Fayette Players and Community Theater and produced four summer Broadway musicals and six winter black box dramas.
Meanwhile, she was still showing up to teach religious education classes at Holy Trinity on Wednesday afternoons.
In 1996, after Mary Ann showed Joan the closet full of donations people were constantly bringing to her at Holy Trinity, the dynamic duo founded Clothes Less Traveled.
Joan combined her local real estate expertise, fashion merchandising, retail experience, and organizational prowess with a passion for repurposing (her father had an Army surplus store, remember?) to bust through walls, physically and metaphorically, as the donations flooded in and the sales flowed out.
She served as vice-president of Clothes Less Traveled for eight years and then president for 12 more. In 2004, she led the move to 5,000 sq. ft. at its current location on Hwy. 74S. They continued to bust through walls as the store grew to 25,000 sq. ft.
“Joan brings people together and inspires others to step up and serve,” says Tammy Turk, Clothes Less Traveled’s current board chair. “In the face of adversity, she holds firm to her moral compass and to her faith knowing that doing the right thing is always the right thing.”
When Bethany Smith brought The Legacy Theatre to Fayette in 2007, Joan packed up the Fayette Players.
“I said ‘You know what you’re doing. Take it.’” And she’s held season tickets ever since.
She continues to be a top real estate producer. A few years ago she joined Keller Williams “because they embrace teams and groups.” She and Sherry Stone Blackmon, her partner, average closing 27 to 34 units a year.
In 2016, she helped Clothes Less Travel recruit its first-ever executive director, and she retired from the board. She still consults and advises with them when they call.
She’s still teaching at Holy Trinity.
She has a servant’s heart, Holy Trinity deacon Richard Schmidt says.
“Joan is giving of herself to help others, and expecting nothing in return,” Richard observes. “She serves as a humble servant to our church, Holy Trinity, as the Sacristan. In this voluntary role, Joan commits her time and talent to ensure our altar is prepared each week for the celebration of Mass. She also volunteers to assist with weddings and funerals at our church.”
Believe it or not, this is not a sum total of the many volunteer roles Joan has filled since crying her eyes out on the way into Fayette. We’ve actually had to leave things out. (She served on the YMCA board, including a stint as chair, for instance.)
But the number one motivator in her life?
Three of Michael and Joan’s children live in New England. The fourth is in Raleigh, not quite so far away. Joan can’t say enough about how proud she is of them, and especially that “they’re all fantastic parents” to their eight grandchildren, who range in age from 7 to 22.
Michael says mutual respect for each other and commitment to the children grew their relationship. Knowing how to work hard and play hard sustained it.
“Joan is fun to be with,” Michael says. “She loves to pull together family gatherings and vacations.”
She makes the most of every moment.
“Whether we are at the beach, getting ice cream, or making dinner together, it is always a fun time,” daughter Christina Preskenis says.“Holiday traditions were always very special with prayer being at the center.”
Joan made a point of staying in touch with family after moving to Georgia, her sister-in-law, Peggy Madison, says. She comes back to New Jersey for holidays, especially Christmas, and special occasions.
“One touching routine she had was to phone her grandmother on a daily basis,” Peggy recalls. “Her Nan waited for that precious call every day anticipating the cheer of Joan’s voice. Until her grandmother’s passing at age 98, Joan never missed a day. Joan now proudly wears her Nan’s beautiful Miraculous Medal as a reminder of the special bond they shared.”
When her parents became ill, Joan took time off from work to be at their sides, Peggy says.
Her father lived to be 91. Her mom died five years after his passing.
She misses them dearly and credits them with providing the foundation for any success she’s experienced in her life.
“You can’t leave your house a mess and go out and be somebody else,” Joan says. “My parents taught us that we’re important and we can make a change in peoples lives because we’re loved… I think if you don’t have love and peace at home it’s quite difficult to see the world as having possibility.”
“My mom has always been tremendously supportive, offering helpful guidance when needed,” Christina says. “In times of difficulty, she can always be counted on for a loving hug, a listening ear, and a trusting heart… She taught us that we are all special and unique. We all have special gifts, and it is our duty to use them well in serving our community.”
Read Mary Ann Cox- You Gotta Love People here.