[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.