show all entries...

Jeanie Davis Pullen

March 22, 2011 at 6:19 pm

[Hi there. If you've stopped by to read my infamous blog post regarding the bizarro publishing history of my trilogy, it's here. If you've come for the book giveaway, the details are here. If you're looking for free stories, they're here.]

Yesterday, I learned of the passing of a teacher and educator who was extremely influential to me. Jeanie Davis Pullen was a very special person; I can't imagine anybody who knew her not sharing my opinion. She touched and brightened the lives of many, many people.

I'm very saddened by the news of her passing. I'd been thinking about her recently, and had been meaning to contact her, which I suppose is what motivated me to google her name and thus find her obituary. How is it possible she's been gone from the world for more than two years? It isn't. It just isn't.

Jeanie had, I have no doubt, a string of eulogists who sang her praises and remembered her with an eloquence I can't hope to approach. She brought that kind of goodness out of people. A proper remembrance would include a long litany of the lives she touched. Anything I say will fall short of properly honoring her. But she's on my mind today, so I'd like to tell you about Jeanie Pullen.

I met Jeanie when I was 17. Jeanie was the coordinator for a program called the Mentor Connection, which paired highly motivated high-school seniors with adults working in careers closely matched to the students' interests. Jeanie had created the program, but she also acted as a mentoring facilitator. Her own personal MC sphere of influence covered several school districts, including mine.

I'd been aiming for the MC program for a year before I was eligible. More than anything else, I wanted to study physics, and to learn as much as I could. But Jeanie didn't accept any halfway-interested kid for the program. One had to be mature (well, mature for that age), responsible, willing to learn, and demonstrate a history of proactively pursuing one's passions. There was a paper application, and, for a select few, an in-person interview with Jeanie.

My memory of that interview, of first meeting Jeanie, is quite vivid. I remember recognizing that I'd scored a few points with her because I knew how to look people in the eye. Because I was prepared. Because I wasn't thrown by the questions.  But one question in particular stands out in my mind.

"If you couldn't study physics, but could do anything else," she asked in that gentle, soothing, firm yet encouraging voice, "what would you want to pursue in your life? What would you want to become?"

I thought about that for a moment, and said something along these lines: "I enjoy creative writing. I think I'd like to try to be a writer."

Oh, Jeanie. I wish I'd contacted you. Because the thing of it? The thing that kind of amazes me? It was years, so many years, before I admitted to anybody else that maybe, just maybe, I'd want to try to be a writer someday.

Somehow Jeanie made the craziest aspirations seem so reasonable. If I had gone into that interview just as determined to become the first dentist on Mars, Jeanie would have found a way to introduce me to a dentist-slash-astronaut-slash-Mars expert. Because that's just how she worked. The lady had amazing powers.

But anyway. I passed the test, and joined the fold, along with about a dozen other kids from all over the Twin Cities. One of my dearest friendships to this day comes from that group, and for that alone I will always be indebted and grateful to Jeanie.

Mentoring was only a part of the program. Jeanie had, I think, two intertwined goals with Mentor Connection. To an outside observer, the purpose of the program was to enable motivated kids to nurture their passions. But Jeanie knew that wasn't enough. Her deeper purpose, the one that would stick long after any formal mentoring was concluded, was to give those kids the life skills they needed to pursue those passions successfully into adulthood.

And in that, nobody could have been a better role model than Jeanie.

Jeanie had—I don't know a better way to describe this—a gentle, matriarchal wisdom that was evident and impressive even to cocky high school students who didn't know anything about the world. (I wasn't one of those. Never.) Adults recognized it, too.  The word that keeps springing to mind is "mythic".

More than that, she was a superconnector and a true southern lady with infectious charm. She was the kind of lady who, after taking a sip of watermelon punch, would say, "Well, now, try this. Isn't it festive?"

And if you introduced her to a friend, you'd all soon discover that— of course—she knew your friend's parents. Anecdotes like this abounded. Everybody had a similar story about Jeanie because Jeanie knew everybody.

Jeanie treated people with the kind of sincere respect that made you feel like you were the sole focus of her attention. That you were an important part of her world. She was one of the most generous souls I've ever known. But to be taken under her wing was a particular honor; one had to earn her patronage. And once she'd invested that faith in you, you wanted to live up to it.

When Jeanie first found me, I was profoundly shy and little bit inarticulate when speaking in front of other people. I'm still painfully shy.  But nowadays, thanks in part to a solid start and a mountain of encouragement from Jeanie all those years ago, I'm actually pretty good at public speaking.  Which has served me very well in both my scientific and writing endeavors.

That's not the only way in which Jeanie's influence has rattled serendipitously through my life. For my mentorship project, Jeanie paired me with a physics professor at the University of Minnesota. He taught me about experimental particle physics, and even helped me build a cosmic ray muon detector. Which was hands down the coolest thing I'd ever done in high school. Fast forward eleven years. The time is rapidly approaching for me to defend my doctoral thesis before my thesis committee. But one person on the committee, a member of the physics faculty, suddenly has a conflict and can't be there on the appointed day. Rescheduling isn't an option, but without a full committee, I can't defend my thesis and (hopefully) graduate. So who volunteers in the nick of time to read my thesis and participate in the defense? My former mentor. A fine example of Jeanie Pullen's influence at work.

(Years later, my former mentor also became one of the influences for a particular protagonist in a particular trilogy.)

Jeanie wrote a book. I still have my copy. Doesn't matter that I don't have children. The book is filled with Jeanie's voice and her wisdom. I'm grateful that a piece of her is still out there in the world where people can encounter it.

After high school, I kept in sporadic contact with Jeanie. In college, I participated in a series of follow-up interviews with former MC students. And when I was in graduate school, I helped Jeanie try to find new mentors for new generations of MC students interested in physics and astronomy. It wasn't unusual to run into Jeanie on campus, often with one of her high school students in tow like a duckling.

But we more or less fell out of touch after I moved to New Mexico. Maybe it's the imminent high school reunion with its big round number attached, but lately something has given me a vague itch to talk to Jeanie. To show her how I turned out. Even now, well into adulthood, I wanted to make her proud of me. I wanted to show her that hey, look, I'm doing both of the things I said I wanted to do in my life. I wanted to live up to her faith in that 17 year old kid I was long ago.

Jeanie, I deeply regret not contacting you one more time before it was too late. I'm so sorry.  Thank you for everything.

Comments

Steve Halter March 22, 2011 at 2:32 pm
I am sad for you that Jeanie is gone, but happy that you met her. She sounds like a marvelous teacher.
Ian March 22, 2011 at 2:59 pm
Thanks, Steve. She was pretty cool.
Melinda March 22, 2011 at 6:17 pm
That was lovely eulogy, and a comfort for those of us who may not believe in heaven or hell. What we can believe is that we may touch people on our way through this world, and someone like Jeanie touched many people very deeply and so will be remembered. That's true immortality. Or at least one we can count on if we live bravely and passionately and it sounds like she did.
Ian March 22, 2011 at 8:52 pm
Thanks, Melinda. I don't know how many students' lives she touched, only that it was very many, both before and after I knew her. I wish that more of the people I know could have known Jeanie.
Brit Mandelo March 22, 2011 at 10:16 pm
Thanks for sharing. Very moving; she sounds like she was an absolutely wonderful woman.
Ian March 22, 2011 at 10:28 pm
She was really special. But think I had forgotten just how much, or neglected my memories about Jeanie.cthu
Sara G. March 23, 2011 at 1:41 am
I'm so glad you wrote this for it is lovely and true. I'll always remember that session we spent learning to ask and answer questions; it has stuck with me and served me ever since. And I've realized that I (very unfairly) judge people who do too much talking as interviewer or interviewee, failing to share the conversational space or pick up cues of guidance or direction. "Didn't anyone ever teach you to be a generous conversationalist?" I'll find myself thinking. And the answer is, no, probably not, because people don't teach that, unless they're Jeannie. We are so very lucky to have had the privilege of knowing her. She was truly the Connection in Mentor Connection and a mentor to all of us in her own right. (btw I remember my interview too. That crappy old car of mine had broken down by the side of the road and I was an hour late. I was so worried that everything would be ruined and I would be rejected as irresponsible. But Jeannie was gracious, of course, and we had a great conversation and it all worked out in the end.)
Ian March 23, 2011 at 11:01 am
We were lucky indeed to know Jeanie. I'm so glad to have somebody who shares the reminiscences. The news of her passing has made me very sad. And I've realized that I (very unfairly) judge people who do too much talking as interviewer or interviewee, failing to share the conversational space or pick up cues of guidance or direction. "Didn't anyone ever teach you to be a generous conversationalist?" You know what? I do that, too. And, in fact, it's one of the primary ways I judge people, to the extent that it's sort of a conscious decision on my part to let that become my first impression of a new person. I've done it most of my adult life. And I really try to be a generous conversationalist. But, until right now, I never realized from where I'd learned to observe that divvying of conversational space, to watch how people do or don't pick up on conversational cues. I now realize Jeanie's influence at work. (Although, of course, she was never so blackheartedly judgmental as I am.) I don't specifically remember those sessions about asking and answering questions (though now that you mention them I can hear, faintly, Jeanie's Kentucky lilt) but clearly they stuck with me. One thing I do remember keenly are the lessons on proper handshaking technique. 20 years on I still haven't mastered it; probably for the better that Jeanie never saw how I turned out in this regard. I remember that car, too.
ChiaLynn March 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm
She sounds like a wonderful woman. I'm glad you had the chance to know her.
Ian March 26, 2011 at 2:10 pm
She really was. I'm glad I knew her. And that so many others did, too.
Steve Nelson October 31, 2012 at 3:13 pm
I have a nearly identical situation. Since myself meeting her in MC, so many years ago now, she was one that was always in the back of my mind. I would wonder if I had lived up to her expectations and hopes, and would think of just how many kids she had had such a positive influence in their lives. I was outside just now, reminiscing about her and that time in my life, and came in, googled her name, and just found the obituary, then this article. I wish I had done this sooner, she was such a wonderful person and really helped make me the person who I am today. I will always remember her.
Nan Davis Ternes June 19, 2016 at 3:37 pm

Dear Ian, I am Jeanie's sister and she would have been so very proud of you! Your words made me weep and smile knowing what a tremendous influence she had on you and others.  Our mother was killed in an auto accident when Jeanie was in college and I was fourteen. Jeanie nurtured and guided me in my teaching and the importance of eye contact, hand shaking, and carrying on a conversation was a basic rule of instruction with my elementary and middle school students. I can still feel Jeanie's strong hugs and hear her infectious laugh. Thank you Ian...and I can assure you... without a doubt...Jeanie is very proud of you indeed! Nan

Nan Davis Ternes June 19, 2016 at 3:37 pm

Dear Ian, I am Jeanie's sister and she would have been so very proud of you! Your words made me weep and smile knowing what a tremendous influence she had on you and others.  Our mother was killed in an auto accident when Jeanie was in college and I was fourteen. Jeanie nurtured and guided me in my teaching and the importance of eye contact, hand shaking, and carrying on a conversation was a basic rule of instruction with my elementary and middle school students. I can still feel Jeanie's strong hugs and hear her infectious laugh. Thank you Ian...and I can assure you... without a doubt...Jeanie is very proud of you indeed! Nan

Ian June 20, 2016 at 8:31 am

Dear Nan,


Thank you so much for your comment.  It makes me very happy to know that my memories of Jeanie have brought a wistful smile to somebody so close to her.  I'm so glad you reached out.


I hope you see this response, because you might enjoy hearing a postscript to my above post: 2 years ago, I married a wonderful woman whom I first met when we were both 17 years old... in Jeanie's Mentor Connection program.  Introducing me to Sara is the very best thing that Jeanie did for me, a profoundly important event in my life that has resonated through the subsequent decades.  We wish so badly that Jeanie could have been at our wedding -- she would have been a very honored guest.  At the ceremony we lit a flame for those who couldn't be with us that day, Jeanie first and foremost.


(And, while it's not much of an honor, my next novel is dedicated to Jeanie's memory.)


Thank you again for reaching out.  May fond memories of your sister bring you joy and comfort.


Ian

Lara June 23, 2016 at 12:12 pm

Congratulations on your wedding! I am sure that my mother was there smiling down on you both.


Thank you so much for your kind words. It is wonderful to read them. Our mother was very, very special. Her Mentor Connection students meant sooooo much to her. She really believed in all of you.


The hand shaking - A few months ago, for some reason, I shook my 15-year-old daughter's hand and realized that she had a horrible handshake. I was appalled and immediately thought of my mother. Needless to say, I spent some time working on her handshake!


Take care,

Lara 

Ian June 23, 2016 at 12:45 pm

It makes me very happy that people so close to Jeanie know just how profoundly she improved our lives.  Thank you for the reassuring words!


Even today, over 25 years later, I want to live up to the ideal that Jeanie saw in me when she accepted me into the MC program.


We had a Quaker wedding, so there is a large framed marriage certificate in our house, signed by everybody who was present for the ceremony.  It hangs prominently in a place of honor in our home.  I gaze at it frequently, and fondly, but I do wish is that it had your mother's signature among the others.  Sara and I talk about it from time to time, and our MC lessons still come up in conversation from time to time.


Just recently, in fact, Sara reminded me that my strong feelings about the value of good communication, and my tendency to watch how people function in a conversational space, almost certainly came from Jeanie!

Ian June 23, 2016 at 12:45 pm

It makes me very happy that people so close to Jeanie know just how profoundly she improved our lives.  Thank you for the reassuring words!


Even today, over 25 years later, I want to live up to the ideal that Jeanie saw in me when she accepted me into the MC program.


We had a Quaker wedding, so there is a large framed marriage certificate in our house, signed by everybody who was present for the ceremony.  It hangs prominently in a place of honor in our home.  I gaze at it frequently, and fondly, but I do wish is that it had your mother's signature among the others.  Sara and I talk about it from time to time, and our MC lessons still come up in conversation from time to time.


Just recently, in fact, Sara reminded me that my strong feelings about the value of good communication, and my tendency to watch how people function in a conversational space, almost certainly came from Jeanie!

Ian June 20, 2016 at 8:31 am

Dear Nan,


Thank you so much for your comment.  It makes me very happy to know that my memories of Jeanie have brought a wistful smile to somebody so close to her.  I'm so glad you reached out.


I hope you see this response, because you might enjoy hearing a postscript to my above post: 2 years ago, I married a wonderful woman whom I first met when we were both 17 years old... in Jeanie's Mentor Connection program.  Introducing me to Sara is the very best thing that Jeanie did for me, a profoundly important event in my life that has resonated through the subsequent decades.  We wish so badly that Jeanie could have been at our wedding -- she would have been a very honored guest.  At the ceremony we lit a flame for those who couldn't be with us that day, Jeanie first and foremost.


(And, while it's not much of an honor, my next novel is dedicated to Jeanie's memory.)


Thank you again for reaching out.  May fond memories of your sister bring you joy and comfort.


Ian

home
recent blog entries
Recent Blog Entries:



Blog Archive
words bio links