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Ripon's hometown girl Jeanne Bice dies at 71
Tim Lyke Publisher
One of Ripon’s most famous hometown girls has died.
Jeanne Bice, a former Ripon resident who knew how to turn adversity into opportunity, succumbed to complications due to uterine cancer Friday at 71.
Bice is best known as creator and owner of the Quacker Factory clothing line, which she sold on her QVC show of the same name.
Over the past 16 years, Bice and her show became immensely popular — appealing to more than 2 million self-described “quackers” — who appreciated the clothing but seemed to enjoy just as much the woman who peddled them electronically and exuberantly.
But the ability of Bice, with her trademark head band, to talk up a clothing line whose sales exceeded $50 million annually, belied her modest start in traditional retail in downtown Ripon.
“I wouldn’t be who I am today if not for how I was allowed to grow up on Ripon,” she told the Commonwealth in 2006.
Bice, who was born in Fond du Lac, formerly co-owned the women’s apparel and gift store at the corner of Ransom and East Fond du Lac streets, The Silent Woman, with Maryanne Diedrich.
Following the death of her beloved husband, Arlow “Butch” Bice Jr., who had a heart attack in 1981 at age 42, Bice found herself at age 40 a “fat lady” (her words) widow with few career skills, a concern given that her husband’s wealth was tied up in her two children’s trusts.
With the help of Ripon friends she referred to as “angels on earth,” Bice began supporting herself and her children with clothing she had designed and embellished with whimsical embroidery and applique.
“You do want to sparkle and shine,” she was quoted as saying several years ago. “I think everyone should wear a rhinestone or sequin somewhere on their body every day.”
Among those who sewed for Bice was Ripon resident Mary Clement, who credits Bice with enabling her to raise her children while working from home.
“I owe a lot to her,” Clement said. “I was just figuring it out; I sewed for her for 10 years. She made it possible for me to stay home with our kids while they were growing up.”
But Clement said her respect for Bice was based on more than a paycheck. “What you saw is what you got. I never heard her speak negatively of any one. She was a very kind person.”
In 1983, Bice moved to Florida. Twelve years later, on Feb. 4, 1996, QVC discovered her, leading to a show that for the next 16 years would feature Bice as much as the clothing and become her springboard to wealth and security.
Most recently a resident of Boca Raton, Fla., Bice became a QVC phenomenon with a flashy personality that made her entertaining but a Midwestern sensibility that made her appealing.
Ripon resident and friend for more than 50 years Donna Long said that Bice never considered herself too important not to make time for new friends.
Long, whose son, Rick, is an executive with The Quack, Inc., recalls having dinner with Bice in Florida several years ago when a man approached their table, asking for an autograph for his wife “who is too shy to ask for it herself.”
Bice not only signed her name, but made a point of stopping by the couple’s table to chat.
“Jeanne Bice was a beautiful, unusual, wonderful woman,” Long said. “She would do anything for anyone. She always looked on the bright side of everything and had a strong belief in God.”
Long, who attended kindergarten with Bice’s husband, Butch, noted that Bice had been in the hospital a few months ago suffering from a cancer she said was incurable but treatable.
Complications led to more hospitalization but still leaving Bice well enough to talk to Long and another good friend, Ripon resident Joan Bischoff, as recently as three weeks ago.
Bice said she was doing better.
Last Friday morning, she was awake, alert and visiting with a QVC executive. That afternoon, she napped and didn’t wake up, Long said.
“Since first appearing on QVC in 1995, Jeanne has been one of our most beloved personalities,” wrote QVC Executive Vice President Doug Howe on the company’s web site. “Her passion and spirit will be greatly missed by all who knew her.”
A tribute to her on the Quacker Factory web site observed that “It never mattered who you were. Rich, famous, powerful or not-it didn’t matter. Successful or struggling, size 4 or 44-it never mattered. She loved who you were inside. She had time for everyone.”
Those who would like to leave a memorial in her name are being asked to give to her favorite charity, Feed the Children, www.feedthechildren.org.
Long hinted of her friend — who once wrote that her wish for friends was for “Angels to carry you by your bra straps while you reach for your star!” — that the Quackers’ loss may be someone else’s gain.
“Somewhere up there she’s organizing a great time,” Long said.