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Published: 5/23/2009

For one Toledoan, entertaining and volunteering are in the bag

You may think you have too many tote bags and purses, but in Jeanene Pifer's world there is never enough. Would you believe 600 and still counting - and shopping for more? The hundreds of people who have been the Toledoan's audiences believe it because they have seen 40 and more totes from her collection in her Toledo's Other Bag Lady shows.

It was a natural for the retired elementary school teacher to put together a one-woman show for organizations. She likes people. She is a born entertainer with a vein of humor plus piano and vocal talent to season her one-hour shows. More important, she has all those bags to back up her theme. She couldn't be a bag lady on stage without them, and she surely delivers with bags in a rainbow of colors, various fabrics, and sizes and shapes. I caught one of Jeanene's shows at the May meeting of the Town Club at Brandywine Country Club, one of several appearances she has scheduled this spring and summer.

The bubbly blonde entertainer arrived with five suitcases that were placed on a table and opened. As the program unfolded she pulled bags from each of the suitcases and had a story to tell and sometimes a song to sing about them. Styles that were passed around to the audience included a jaunty high-heel pump zipper purse, a purse made of auto seat belts, and a colorful jacket made of everyday plastic bags. A large tote with clear plastic pockets held several photos of Ms. Pifer's family.

Why tote bags? She remembers that when she was 3 years old she asked her mother to buy her one. Obviously her mother granted her wish because her interest in bags continued through her college years, her professional life, and now as a retirement hobby.

Her mother, Virginia Pifer, who accompanies her to most of her performances in northwest Ohio, knows the retail business well. She retired from Elder Beerman after 40 years when she was 86 years old.

Toledo's Other Bag Lady program title refers to the late Elaine Higgins, a well-known downtown Toledo street person.

When specific bags inspire Ms. Pifer to put down the microphone and play and sing familiar tunes, the audience realizes she is as happy at the piano keyboard as she is talking about her collection of unusual bags.

When a striking bag in a red rose print was presented, Ms. Pifer hurried to the piano and played "Rambling Rose."

"Teddy Bear's Picnic" was the appropriate tune for bags cut and stitched as the cuddly bears. A bag with a head-to-tail dog pattern inspired her to play "How Much Is that Doggie in the Window?" and "Alley Cat" was the song choice with a cat-shaped bag.

Never leave home without a tote bag, she advises, because they are useful and help you keep track of things. She keeps four bags at the back door. One is for her organ music at the Heatherdowns Church of the Brethren, one holds church board material, another is always packed for her volunteer work, and the fourth is the music for the Michigan/ Ohio concert choir of which she is a member.

A native of Lima, she received a bachelor of science degree in elementary education and music from Bluffton College, with an emphasis on the pipe organ.

Ms. Pifer has a lot of fun showing off her bag collection, but she also shows a serious side that dips delicately into religion and reflects her years of work as a guidance counselor in Toledo's inner city. She earned a master's degree in guidance and counseling from the University of Toledo and studied counseling at Ohio State University, Davis Business College, and the Alfred Adler Institute of Psychology in Chicago, and drug addiction at Toledo Hospital and the University of London, England.

As a volunteer patient liaison in the emergency trauma department at the University of Toledo's medical school, she indirectly encourages her listeners to consider volunteering.

"Being a volunteer you care, share, and love and you go home with a heart overflowing with joy," she said.

With a finger pointing at the audience and a broad smile, Ms. Pifer asks, "Did anyone tell you today you are terrific?" and closes her program with the hymn, "How Great Thou Art."



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