CHAMPAIGN — With a baggy Santa suit hanging off of his gaunt frame, Jim Bean danced around the homey front room at Inman Place, an independent living facility downtown, at times leaving the rest of the Christmas Carolers Choir to dance and sing for people sitting in armchairs off to the side.
Bean has fronted rock bands across the area for decades, performing to sellout crowds with several local bands. In 1985, he opened for Blue Oyster Cult at a packed Virginia Theatre.
His yearly tour around C-U’s retirement homes and assisted living facilities with the Christmas Carolers Choir, though, is more special than any of those performances.
“My mother was killed a week before Christmas in 1996,” he told the small crowd of retirees in between songs on Friday, “and I love to do this instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for myself.”
Sharon Kite, buried as Sharon Bean, was a doting and loving stay-at-home mom who was involved in every aspect of her two sons’ lives, Bean said, from Cub Scouts to sports.
In mid-December 23 years ago, she was brutally murdered by her husband while she slept a week before Christmas.
Her husband then committed suicide.
Bean was guided through his mother’s home an hour after the murder, and to this day he can’t get the images out of his head. He’s never been able to disassociate her death with the Christmas season.
Already an alcoholic, Bean fell down a hole in the years after his mother’s death. Each Christmas was the apex of his despair.
“I celebrated by getting snockered,” Bean said, “just really drunk.”
On Mother’s Day in 2003, Bean decided to quit drinking. Still, he couldn’t disassociate the holiday season with his mother’s death.
So in 2011, he decided to start a new tradition. He put out a call on Facebook for willing singers to entertain people at retirement homes, and several friends answered the call.
“She loved the Christmas season and caroling and carolers and all of that,” he said. “So the idea that finally came to me, OK, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing this time of year.
“Everybody knows that it’s a children’s holiday, and for the most part, we pay a lot of attention to making sure that our children and a lot of other people’s children are well taken care of during the season. And there’s another community out there, there’s the elderly (and the disabled), that are sometimes maybe not thought about as much.”
As a fan of the local music scene, Kara Cochran knew of Bean, but she didn’t know him personally when she saw the Facebook message and replied that she’d like to participate.
Cochran hasn’t sung on Bean’s level, but as a hobbyist, she always felt confident in her abilities. On Friday, her voice rang out as loud and pure as anyone in the entire choir, and her solo drew applause.
Each year, she makes it a point to come out to every performance, to the point where she puts other things on hold.
“Being (Bean’s) friend and seeing what he gets out of this, it makes you feel good,” she said. “It just kind of gives you a mental check, when you’re busy and you’re going to work and the dog’s got to go out and you just stop and think and relish. So it really puts things in perspective.
“A lot of people have dementia, and their family members don’t want to come and see them or are unable to. A lot of them don’t even have visitors for Christmas.”
Bean estimates he and the Christmas Carolers Choir have sung at more than 100 homes in their nine years of existence.
They sing 15 songs at each and hand out lyric sheets to everyone in attendance so they can sing along.
“We get people involved in our performances, and we hear from lots and lots of them that they enjoyed it a great, great deal,” Bean said. “That’s all about, again, somebody giving them attention, paying them some attention. Making them feel special for one evening. And that they are special, and that they haven’t been forgotten.
“All of that, I know, would make my mom very, very proud of me and very happy.”
Each year, the group sings its last carols on Christmas Eve at Swann Special Care Center, which cares for people with “severe and profound intellectual disabilities,” according to its web site. They use donations to buy a stuffed animal to give each resident that day.
To Bean, that’s the most special day in a week full of rewarding moments.
At a performance last week, Bean and his choir noticed one man having a particularly good time. The man approached Bean afterwards, when he was circling the room giving out hugs.
“He said he had seven or eight months to live, and he just told us how much he enjoyed us and he was set on having as much fun as he could with the time that was left,” Bean said. “Those are special moments that you don’t know are going to happen.”
Bean said he still knows that a wave of depression is headed his way as the weather gets colder and the Christmas decorations go up. The mantra that time heals all wounds, he said, doesn’t quite ring true to him.
But Christmas is no longer solely associated with the worst moment of his life.
“It gives us a new meaning and a different meaning than it had,” Bean said. “It helps a great deal and, yeah, there’s a different identity to what that holiday means to me now, because I look forward to what we’re going to be doing, and I spend much less time, let’s say, sitting around feeling sorry for myself or whatever.”