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  • Tara Crutchfield

Dorothy Jean’s Dream Initiative

On the breezy front porch of the Fort Meade Historical Museum, Founder & Executive Director of Dorothy Jean’s Dream Initiative, Jaret Landon, began to tell his story. He chose the setting for its connection to the rich history of the oldest city in Polk County, a city he loves dearly. “This place has my heart,” he said. Landon is an NAACP Award Winning Composer and Music Director with work on Broadway, film, and television. He returned to Fort Meade ten months ago in the throes of his career to ignite the foundation he started in his mother’s honor. 



Since age five, Landon could hear a song once and play it on the piano. He said, “I actually started playing because my brother got all the attention.” Landon hails from a musical family with his grandmother, mother, and brother playing piano. “My grandparents and mother nurtured that gift,” he said. 


That gift eventually landed him at Harrison School for the Arts. He’d wake up each day at 4:30 a.m. to catch the bus to school. Before he went off to college, Landon promised his grandparents that as he grew his career, he would always come home to give back. He intends to keep that promise. “There is a pump inside of me that pumps into my veins, the belief that you can be great, you will be great, and with this greatness, it is not for you. It is to serve and help others. […] And I believe it deeply.”


“I wanted to be an artist,” Landon said. He comes from an honest, hard-working family. His grandfather was a pastor and worked for the U.S. Steel Corporation, and his grandmother worked at the canning plant. “The idea of being an artist and making a living was a little bit foreign… or a lot a bit foreign, and they wanted to make sure I had something to fall back on.” They continued encouraging his abilities and trusted he would figure it out as he attended Florida State University for Music Performance.


Photograph Provided

Landon’s foundation is family and faith. He grew up singing hymns in church just a mile from the Historical Museum. His grandfather pastored Beulah Baptist Church for some 45 years, and Landon grew up there playing the piano, drums, and organ. He ushered, was a choir member, maintenance man, and whatever else the Lord and his grandfather called on him to do. 


“Beulah Baptist Church is my home church,” he said. “It’s where they allowed me to explore, allowed me to grow. The patience and the love that they gave me while I was there is the foundation of who I am, of who I became in my journey, and it really gave me wings to fly.” At age 11, Landon became the music director of the church’s youth, adult, and men’s choirs. By 13, he was planning Christmas cantatas and Easter concerts, laying the bedrock for his career to come. That role validated Landon in ways he wouldn’t understand until years later. It made him feel loved and appreciated. Because of his early experiences at his grandfather’s church, Landon could go off to FSU, lead the big jazz band and combos, and music direct the Florida State gospel choir for the first two years. 


During his freshman year at FSU, Landon put out his first record and live DVD recording. As the backdrop for the project, he returned to the flock that gave him wings to fly. Landon and twenty college friends loaded into his mom’s station wagon and the church bus and road-tripped from Tallahassee to Fort Meade. He hired a film crew and recorded at Beulah Baptist. He reflected on that first of many milestones. From a young age, he was told, “You are going to do well.” Landon said, “Sometimes when someone’s belief in you is so far greater than what you can see, when they say it enough, you believe it.”


Upon graduating from Florida State, Landon had a decision to make. Was he to move to New York for theatre or LA for film and television? Both felt overwhelming at the time. He was the first in his large extended family to leave the state. One of his teachers, an alumnus of Northwestern University in Chicago, suggested the Windy City as the best move for Landon. He applied, was accepted, and he and his mother loaded up his two-door Toyota Solara and drove from Tallahassee to Chicago. He eventually transferred from Northwestern to VanderCook College of Music, where he earned his master’s in education.  


Photograph Provided

In Chicago, Landon’s whole life changed. In 2008 he found himself with the unexpected opportunity to work on the musical “Black Nativity” by Langston Hughes. It was the first show he’d ever been the musical director on, and though he’d never done it before and didn’t know exactly how everything worked, he had solid footing. “What I did have is I was the music director at my granddad’s church at 11 and 12.” Since then, Landon has directed a show regionally, off-Broadway, or on Broadway every year. 


In 2010, Landon was called to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre to work on a show. Denzel Washington’s wife, Pauletta, was coming out of retirement for the production “Crowns” by Regina Taylor. Unfortunately, Landon was passed up for the role of music director. 


According to Landon, a nervous Pauletta requested an accompanist for a photo shoot, and they tapped him for the gig. He played the piano while she was photographed. “She was raised in a church where they sang a lot of hymns,” he said. Landon knew all the hymns from his time at Beulah Baptist. “As she’s going from hymn to hymn to hymn, I am following her no matter what key she was in. I knew all of them. She said, ‘Who is this little boy?’” 


“She took me in under her wing, and from that time, they have been like parents to me,” Landon said of Denzel and Pauletta. The show hired him as assistant music director at Washington’s behest. He went on to write original music for the project just one day before its premiere. 


Photograph Provided

Through Pauletta’s music director, Landon was hired to work on American Idol, and from 2013-2016 he flew back and forth from Chicago to LA during filming. “Denzel comes to Chicago a handful of times, and they give me tough love. ‘If you want to do this, you have to move to Los Angeles,’” Landon said. “I was scared. My family was here. Chicago was already far enough.”


When Idol ended, Landon took Washington’s advice and decided to move. His mother’s health was already failing, and her doctor advised her not to go to Chicago to help with the move. She told her doctor, ‘Okay.’ “The next week, she says, ‘Make sure you book my ticket to Chicago,’” Landon said, laughing. Ravaged by chemo and radiation, Williams wasn’t well, but she willed her ailing body to fly to Chicago and drive with Landon to Los Angeles. “I could tell she was in pain but smiled through it,” he said.

That was the last car trip they took together. “It was the most beautiful time that led me to Los Angeles.”


Within a month, he was working on the film “Fences” with Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. He later worked on the LEGO Batman Movie and ramped up his work on Broadway. His five-year project in the making, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” is set to premiere on Broadway soon. 


DOROTHY JEAN 


“My mom was my best friend,” Landon said. Everyone thinks they have the best mother in the world, as they should, but Landon said, “I truly feel I have the best mother in the world for me and my journey. The biggest supporter, defender. She had a fierce love and protection over me. [She was my] corrector, guide, my heartbeat. We talked on the phone ten times a day.” 


The eldest of eight children, Dorothy Jean Williams was a hard worker who helped raise her seven siblings while her parents worked. She was the first to go to college and to graduate. Her siblings followed her lead. “They all lived with my mother in Miami, every last one of them. They had children, and all of them lived with my mother.” 


In the late 60s and early 70s, anyone from Polk County who went to school in Miami sought out Williams, who worked in the financial aid office. She helped secure scholarships for students, one of many ways she helped others. Many students, unrelated to Williams, stayed in her small Miami home for a time while they attended school. “Mom’s life inspired me to do what I do because I watched her help so many,” Landon said. “I wanted to mirror her heart. The way that I first knew how to do that was through music.” 


She was a good daughter and best friend to her parents. Dorothy Jean took care of them both. She cared for her father even while she battled stage 4 colon cancer. “We didn’t argue much. We did there,” Landon said. “She would tell me, ‘As fierce as your love is for me, is the same for my father.’ It was a battle I knew I couldn’t win.”


Piano keys, his mother’s heartbeat from her EKG during her cancer journey, and a heart with a cross are tattooed on Landon’s arm. “She is a part of everything that I am, of who I desire to be in the world.” 


When his mother was diagnosed with cancer, Landon would fly down from Chicago every weekend to be with her. In the last months of her life, Landon worked on “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story” with iconic names like Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, and BeBe Winans. Knowing his mother’s health was declining, Landon came home that April and told her he would pull out of the project. Williams’s strength was waning – she could hardly walk by this time, but “She pulled herself out of the bed and started packing my suitcase. She said, ‘You have to go. You have to go.’” 


Growing up, we think of soulmates as the singular person you’ll grow old with — a romantic, once-in-a-lifetime love. “As I grew in both a spiritual sense and an understanding of the world, I learned your soulmate can be someone who connects in your life with your purpose, who you are in the core of your being. That’s what my mom was.” 


Landon flew home on July 3, 2022, and his mother passed away the following day. Before she passed, she told Landon three things: ‘Get my purse (Landon laughed at this), I love you, and be strong.’ “That’s who she was. Her love was so great, and it was sacrificial in a way.” 


A DREAM FOR FORT MEADE


Landon built a home in Los Angeles in 2020 and was ready to enjoy the fruits of his labor, “and God redirects my path two years in.” With little outside help and plenty of obstacles, Landon was honest in sharing that the journey has been challenging. He’s shed tears and questioned his decisions, but he said, “I’m still here.” His initial goals were to start the foundation and create events until they could drum up funding to put infrastructure in place for their long-term vision of lessons, masterclasses, and performance opportunities. 


“Dorothy Jean’s Dream Initiative exists to bring arts and cultural opportunities to all of Polk County,” Landon said. They have started with underserved communities, but the goal is to bring those opportunities to the entire county. “This town of less than 6,000 people is in desperate need of arts and cultural opportunities. I came back home to be a part of that,” he said. 


During a time when cattle and citrus were booming industries, and Fort Meade had a Coca-Cola bottling plant and a commuter train ran through the town, “There was much more life here, much more commerce. It’s just dried up.” Now that the mines have left, Landon described it as a veritable “ghost town” after 5 o’clock. “I come [to the historical museum] often to be reminded of what was and what can be with heart, tenacity, money, and a steadfastness to make it happen,” he said.


Landon hopes to change the perception of the town for outsiders and the reality of its residents. “My ideal Fort Meade looks like a place that is welcoming for all,” Landon said. “There are some racial challenges that still exist in Fort Meade, and I’ve encountered a lot of them in the last ten months.” Landon envisions a Fort Meade beyond racial divides with thriving restaurants, retail, and activities for all citizens. 


The Dorothy Jean’s Dream Initiative founder is taking an intergenerational approach to community development with dreams of a theatre on Main Street as there once was, farmer’s markets, and food trucks. He looks to the downtown park in Wauchula for inspiration on a beer and wine garden that’s already underway. “That’s a lofty ideal of what Fort Meade could be, but that’s what exists in my head.”


The foundation is a team of two, Landon and his business partner Ramel Ford. Ford is an Entrepreneur and CEO at RFI Group Inc. “providing resources and opportunities to underserved communities throughout Polk County, FL and abroad.”


From Winter Haven, Ford is connected to Fort Meade through Landon’s family. He works in New York and has flown to Florida every Friday for the past ten months to work on the initiative with Landon. The pair have invested time, blood, sweat, tears, and money into the city. They’ve purchased buildings and land downtown and on the southside. 


Landon and Ford created the Fort Meade Soul Music Festival last year. Knowing the town was in sore need of arts and cultural opportunities, they thought if 200 people showed up, it was a win. They walked almost every block in Fort Meade handing out flyers for the event and were turned away by more than one person, yet they persisted. “We put that same sweat equity into getting people out here,” he said. In their hope of 200 people, 2,000 showed up. The street was closed off with food trucks and a community choir which Landon called “one of the most beautiful experiences.” When they hosted the event again this year, they thought perhaps the 2,000 from the year prior was a fluke. This February, about 3,000 people flocked downtown for Soul Fest 2023. Dorothy Jean’s Dream Initiative also hosted a 2022 Scholarship Gala at Streamsong Resort called Stars Under the Stars. 


In the empty lot downtown, where Western Auto previously stood, landscaping is already underway for Landon’s planned civic space, Paz Garden. “Paz in English means ‘peace,’” Landon said. “There’s a large Hispanic population here in Fort Meade that feels like they aren’t seen. I am making an effort to include them in all of our plans so they can see identity in what we’re doing.”


A nucleus for community gatherings, Paz Garden will house a stage for entertainment, a beer and wine bar, murals along the walls, a fountain, and ample seating. Next door to the soon-to-be Paz Garden, Landon opened Bella Vita Salon and Spa. In another building he purchased, the Dorothy Jean’s Dream Initiative founder envisions a performing arts theatre and, across the street, restaurants and retail. “If you can endure the trials, I know the blessings are on the other side,” he said. 


Dorothy Jean Williams lives on in legacy. A woman of strong character, service, and drive, she raised a son who is changing the world – one song, one event, one opportunity at a time. “Mom will continue to live,” Landon said. “Because if I go into the bathroom, and I smile, and I look long enough, she shows up in a spiritual way.”


Photography by Amy Sexson

 

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