Jean Jacoby has a reserved, soft-spoken demeanor, but she seems to possess an admirable kind of strength and self-acceptance. A child of the Depression, she has early memories of sledding down the deserted streets of Jamestown, New York on winter nights. She met her husband Dick at St. Lawrence University, and they have been a team ever since, working, traveling, raising two children, and now living in Lompoc in a beautiful house that was built in 1928. "It's as old as Dick is," she says. In this interview, she muses about the value of friendship, the sense of freedom and autonomy she still feels on a bicycle, and her gratitude for a fortunate life.
WHAT WOULD LIFE BE WITHOUT FRIENDS?
This interview took place on July 28, 2014 at the Jacoby residence in Lompoc, California.
JJ: My name is Jean Claire Lewis Jacoby. I was born February 6, 1931, during the Great Depression, in Olean, New York, which is in southwestern New York. I only lived there maybe a year and the rest of my childhood was then in Jamestown, New York. I spent my childhood and my school years in Jamestown. I left to go to college when I was eighteen.
CCW: And what was it like growing up in Jamestown?
JJ: It was great. I had a lot of friends who were neighbors and we got together, we were unsupervised. We didn’t have any supervised play. We supervised ourselves. We played all kinds of games and in the wintertime we went sledding. Jamestown is a very hilly town, so we would sled down the middle of the street at night in the wintertime. There were so few cars. It seems it would be very unsafe, but at that time it wasn’t. Anyway, it was a very nice childhood.
CCW: Did you have any siblings?
JJ: Yes, I had an older brother. Two years older than me. And growing up we were not friends. He teased me. Brothers do that. But now, he’s a good friend. He lives in Mountain View.
CCW: You said you left to go to college. Where did you go to college?
JJ: St. Lawrence University. Canton, New York. That’s what I would say is upstate. Northern New York. Near the Canadian border, not far from the St. Lawrence River. My degree was in psychology and I had a minor in sociology, I think, and English. I thought I’d be a social worker. But I wasn’t one.
Dick and I met at St. Lawrence. We were married the August after we graduated. Dick went to law school in Albany, New York, and I got a job. I went to the department that hired social workers first, thinking I could get a job, but there weren’t any. So I got a job in an office as a dictaphone typist in an insurance office. I think I made $40 a week. And then I got a better job as the typist and the only office person in a firm of CPAs. So I did typing. I typed out all the financial reports on a typewriter, and of course there could be no mistakes. No erasures. So I learned to be a very careful typist.
CCW: I’m fascinated, as a woman, how many of us made our way by typing. What year did you say you met Dick?
JJ: Well, we met in a philosophy class when we were freshmen, but we weren’t dating really until our senior year. In my junior year, I went to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Then when I came back, we started dating. We were engaged in January of 1953 and married that August before we went to Albany.
CCW: I’m just curious. I have to ask. Did you feel derailed from your own career? You had this hope of becoming a social worker and there you are typing. Or was that just okay?
JJ: That was what happened. It was okay. At my first job, at the insurance office, there were other young people, other college graduates, we had a good time together. The second job was not so interesting because I was all alone. They went out to the businesses that they were working for. But then, I was only there a year, because we decided we wanted to go West. I had never been West. Well, I’d been west as far as Michigan. So Dick applied to other law schools and we went to Montana. He transferred to the University of Montana in Missoula.
CCW: Well, that must have been a great adventure. So tell me a little bit about that.
JJ: We lived in student housing that was old military housing. They were very rudimentary. We had a wood-burning cook stove. Well, I didn’t grow up with a wood-burning cook stove, so of course we didn’t do too well with that. So we got an injection heater. It burned kerosene instead of coal or wood and it heated the house too. It was a regular old iron top stove. It was pretty rudimentary. But it didn’t matter. We were young, adaptable, met a lot of people, and had a lot of fun.
CCW: What did you think when you first rolled into Missoula?
JJ: Well, we were glad we made it because we were worried about our car! We had an Austin that we bought in Albany for $400. It was our first car, a wonderful little English car. And I think one of the reasons we bought it was that it had leather upholstery. You got in that car and it smelled like leather. But we did have a little trouble, because it didn’t like going up steep hills.
Getting into Missoula, I don’t remember. We just found our little apartment. I think it was $19 a month, and I got a job at the library. I was assistant to the acquisitions librarian, which was very interesting. I mean, it was really an office job, but I got to open all the books as they came in and look at them. So I was in the library, and I was working for a man who was the acquisitions librarian and wasn’t too much older, and we got acquainted with his wife and we were all friends. We met a lot of people.
CCW: How long were you in Montana?
JJ: We stayed that year and then we sort of ran out of money and we needed to do something else. So Dick took a leave from the school and we went to Denver, Colorado. And we found a basement apartment in a nice house the first day we arrived. It was during the World Series. It must have been in September. And I worked in the Colorado General Hospital in the admissions department. It wasn’t a very demanding job, either. I didn’t need to be a college graduate, but it was okay. It was a job.
CCW: So it sounds like you weren’t looking to find the meaning to life in your work. You weren’t approaching with that kind of awareness?
JJ: No I wasn’t. It was a different time. I didn’t think of myself as going to have a career that was going to take my energy and time. It’s okay. In fact, I was an early joiner into the feminist movement. I remember Betty Friedan’s book. I certainly read that when it came out. I understood. But you know, Dick was a partner. He grew up without a father. His mother was the parent. So he had different attitudes about women. It was always fifty-fifty with us. Anything we had. Any money we had was our money. We were a team.
CCW: You’ve been living in Lompoc for a long time. How did you come to be here?
JJ: After we left Colorado we went back to Missoula and Dick finished his law degree and I got a master’s degree in sociology. But in order to finish there was one class that he hadn’t finished so he had to go to summer school, so we went to Seattle for the summer so Dick could get his law course that he needed to get his degree. He was admitted to the bar in Montana, and we needed then to get a job. We moved back to Jamestown with my mother and Dick eventually joined the AIr Force. We were in Jamestown for a year while my mother was having a house built and Dick was the supervisor because they didn’t take him right away. He got into the Air Force and we were sent to England where we lived for almost a year. Then the base closed in England and we were sent to France, where we lived for three years. This was in the 1960s. I think we came back here in 1962. Those were wonderful years in France. I had taken some French in high school and in college, so I had some language, some facility, and I hooked up with a local teacher who taught me more French. And we had French neighbors and we spoke French all the time. We still have friends there. I just sent a letter yesterday to one of them. And Kam and Leigh when they were back in France this summer went back and stayed with our old neighbors.
Then we went to Dayton, Ohio for two years and Dick left the Air Force then and was hired by the AID program and was preparing with two other people to go to Guinea in Africa but before we could get there the Guinean government cancelled the contract and went with the Soviets instead. So then we were based in Dayton and
needed to find another job. So Dick did get a job in Washington D.C. but in the meantime a friend from Vandenburg Air Force Base called and said to him, “Dick, I’ve gotten your name to the top of a list of possible hirees for civilian lawyers, so at least come out and interview for the job.”
So it was March or February, and he got into the car and had a hard time getting the key in the lock because it was frozen, it was cold–we were in Jamestown then–we had moved back to Jamestown. And he got to California in March, which of course was beautiful. Everything was green…so when he saw Lompoc, and saw this area, and interviewed for the job, he thought, “This would be a good place to be.” So that’s how we got here. It was 1965.
CCW: Did you share his feeling when you got here?
JJ: It reminded me of Scotland. Remember, I had spent a year in Scotland. I thought, “This is just like Scotland.” It was beautiful. I loved it.
CCW: Are we sitting in the same house you moved into at that time?
JJ: No. We rented a house first, a modern new house over on Z Street until we found something, and we were so lucky to find this house. Someone else had bought it and it was in escrow, but it fell out of escrow, and the realtor said, “Well, you can look at this house.” And of course we walked into this house, and we said, this is the house.
CCW: It’s a beautiful house. Feels like an oasis.
JJ: It was built in 1928. It’s as old as Dick is.
CCW: You’ve been here a long time. Seen a lot of changes? Or is there something constant about it?
JJ: Lompoc is still a small town. You go to the grocery store, you always see people. We made a lot of friends here that have been important to us, and our children have grown up here. Kam is nearby and Leigh likes to come back. She likes living in Los Angeles but she likes to come back here.
CCW: I think of you as a creative person. Didn’t you used to do some type of drawing and journaling?
JJ: Well, when the children were young I used to tell them stories. Kam wanted me to write them down, and I did write a few down. And my brother has done an elaborate genealogy of our family and I have also contributed. I’ve written about my mother and about my father, and about my own experiences growing up. I’ve done that.
CCW: I thought you did some kind of botanical drawings?
JJ: Mushrooms. Mushrooms were my hobby. I used to find mushrooms, and in order to identify them I would draw pictures. But it was hardly art.
CCW: Do you still gather mushrooms?
JJ: I do somewhat. In fact we ate some this past year, but there aren’t too many in California. It’s something I took up when we were back East. That was just a hobby.
CCW: And you’re a bicyclist too.
JJ: And a bicyclist.
CCW: Tell me about that.
JJ: Well, of course as a child I bicycled. And when I was in college. At least in Scotland we bicycled. And then we came to Lompoc and I had a bicycle and I got into bicycling with some friends longer distances. So I got a different bike and we did a lot of bicycling with five or six of my women friends and the first trip we took was a long trip...we took the train up to Salinas, we got a ride in someone’s van over to the coast, and we bicycled down the coast as far as San Luis Obispo. That was in 1976. I had a 10-speed then. We didn’t have much in the way of gear, but we had a wonderful time. There were seven of us. There weren’t a lot of people doing that, and there wasn’t much traffic, and the weather was good. So, subsequently, this group of friends and I and Dick took many bicycle trips, in California, and we went down to Natchez Trace, we bicycled the Erie Canal, we bicycled in France, and Italy, and England. I still bicycle every day. That’s my transportation. Lompoc is perfect for it. There’s no place you can go that takes more than ten minutes.
CCW: How do you feel when you get on your bike?
JJ: I feel free. And self-reliant. I have a basket; I can carry any groceries I have. I bicycle right up to the door. I don’t have to look for a parking space. This is just the perfect place for a bike. The weather’s always good.
CCW: I have the same feeling about bikes. When I get on my bike, I feel ten years old.
JJ: Yes. And I’m a hiker too. Same group, we hike in a lot of different places.
CCW: Do you have a special place you like to hike?
JJ: Hiking down the Manzana from NIRA. That was special. But we’ve done lots of hikes...19 Oaks, Gaviota Peak. There’s that other hike, too. On the other side, you take that trail up so you overlook the Hollister Ranch.
CCW: Have you been out there recently?
JJ: Not recently, because our group is getting old. One of our group has Alzheimer’s or something like that. One is 93. She’s in pretty good shape, but her knees are gone. She’s had one replaced, but she’s having the other one done too. I still can do it, but my companions can’t do so much. So we walk around River Park. At some point, you realize, maybe I can’t do that anymore. But I always kept track of all of our hikes and I look back at the things we did and you can’t do them all anymore. But we did them. And that’s a very good thing. To remember all the things we’ve done. So if we don’t travel anymore, it’s okay. We’ve been to a lot of places.
CCW: What gives you strength? How do you get through hard times?
JJ: I guess you work. I work. I go work in the garden. I do things around the house that need to be done. I keep moving, I guess. But you know, I’ve had a very fortunate life. My children still care about us. We still care about them. They’re compatible with each other, which is really important, for siblings to be good friends, and Kam and Leigh are very good friends. And we don’t have any strained relationships with anybody that we know. Which is very good.
CCW: I respect that. I think there’s something very beautiful about acknowledging that you’ve had a fortunate life and being grateful. Being aware of it.
JJ: I am very aware of it.
I had great parents. They didn’t get along that well together, but they were certainly good to me. And I’ve had a great marriage and successful children who are interesting people.
And physically, I’ve had good health. I can still do most of the things I like to do. I feel very fortunate.
And I was born in America. That’s the first thing.
CCW: When you were growing up, was there any kind of religion or spirituality in your family?
JJ: No. My mother grew up with a very religious father who was not a particularly good parent, and she felt it was all a lot of hypocrisy, so she never was interested. But she was a wonderful, ethical person, as was my father. But they never went to church. We used to go to Sunday school, because I went with my friends. Whatever Sunday school they were going to, I’d go. I went to a lot of Sunday schools. But it never resonated with me. And Dick and I have been members of the Unitarian Church, which doesn’t mean you have to believe in anything. As we say, the church doesn’t give you any answers, we just have questions. And I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in any organized religion.
CCW: What are you proudest of in your life?
JJ: I’m proud to have successful children. I’m proud that I live in a democratic society, and we’ve always been active...on the Democratic side.
CCW: Is there any advice you would give? Wisdom or lessons?
JJ: Be honest. Be honest with yourself, honest with others. That’s one of the most important. And be kind. Be honest and kind.
CCW: Who was the biggest influence in your life? Any particular mentor or person who touched your life?
JJ: My parents, of course. And I had a wonderful music teacher, a piano teacher, whom I admired and liked a lot and who paid a lot of attention to me.
CCW: Is music still a part of your life?
JJ: Yes. I don’t play the piano anymore, but I’ve been active...I’m on the board of the Lompoc Music Association. Dorothy and I used to play our recorders together.
CCW: You seem like someone who’s always been very engaged in community. Would you say that’s accurate?
JJ: Certainly since we’ve been in Lompoc. When the children are young, you’re not so involved, but by the time we came here, our children were 5 and 7. I guess I sometimes have a thought that I didn’t spend enough time with my children. But on the other hand, my mother and father never engaged in my activities, so I guess that’s what I was modeling on. Parents today spend so much time and energy with their children, and I think, gee...maybe I should have followed their careers in school more closely. I didn’t.
I can remember thinking that the best thing you can be for your children is a model. So, I tried to be that. You know, we were very engaged in the political...Dick was on the council and served as mayor for a while...I was quite involved in various groups...maybe that was my justification for not being so involved with the children. I thought I should be the kind of person they should want to be like.
CCW: It sounds like you were a good example. Is there anything else you wish you had done differently?
JJ: When thinking about how we mature and become wiser, I often think about my wedding. My father was dead. He died when I was nineteen. And of course I was a very independent young woman, and I thought, “I don’t need anyone to walk down the aisle with me, I can walk down the aisle by myself.” Which I did.
But I had a grandfather. And now I think, “Why didn’t I have my grandfather walk me down the aisle?” I’ve always regretted that.
CCW: But he was at the wedding, right? He saw you get married.
JJ: He was there. He died a year after. Or that same year.
But I didn’t know. As an adult, you realize that you should have been thinking about other people, in other words, not trying to prove how independent you were.
CCW: But that’s probably beyond the capability of a really young person. It’s a rare young person who has that kind of empathy, right? I think we’re all rather self-absorbed when we’re young.
JJ: It was only in hindsight that I thought these things.
CCW: But he was probably proud.
JJ: I don’t know. I think that would have been a small thing.
CCW: Can you think of any particular turning point in your life when you had a big choice or decision in your life? A crossroads point?
JJ: I can’t think of any crossroads. As I said, I’ve had a very fortunate life.
CCW: Has it turned out differently than what you imagined?
JJ: I don’t think so. I mean, here we are, in this wonderful state of California, close to the ocean. We’ve had lots of friends. I was walking home the other day and I looked across the street and I said to myself, “That’s my house. That beautiful house is my house.” So I don’t regret that I’m not someplace else, that I’m not somebody else.
CCW: Happiest moment of your life?
JJ: Who can say?
CCW: How would you like to be remembered, Jean?
JJ: I would like to be remembered as a good friend. Fun to be with, I guess...a good friend.
CCW: Is there anything else? Any thought you want to share while we’re sitting here?
JJ: One of the most interesting parts of my life, one year of my life, was when I was in Scotland for that year at the university and then spent the following summer traveling all over Europe, with a little suitcase about that big and very little money. With a friend, of course. My junior year in college. That was a wonderful year. It got me to England. I was a big reader and read a lot of English novels. That was a big thrill in my life, at twenty years old, to go and live in a foreign country. It was a lifelong memory. Scotland, England, Ireland, Italy, France...we traveled about two and a half months, until we came back at the end of August. We took trains. We hitchhiked in England. It was a different time, of course. I can remember once a man came along on a motorcycle with a sidecar so Nancy got in the sidecar and I got on the motorcycle, and off we went. We were going to Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford on Avon. I remember. And we stopped and he bought us a basket of strawberries. And then we saw a play at the Globe Theater. I don’t even remember what we saw. It doesn’t matter. We did that.
We went to Ireland. We were traveling then with two other girls, and one of them had a friend whose father was in the embassy in Dublin so we went to Dublin and he invited us for dinner at the embassy, and he had invited an Irishman who was a talker, and he came and told us all about The Troubles. That was interesting.
CCW: What was your friend’s name, the one you traveled with?
JJ: Nancy Smiley.
CCW: Do you still know her?
JJ: I do. She’s now in an assisted care facility and her memory is going, but we’ve been friends a long time.
CCW: It sounds like friendship has been an important part of your life.
JJ: Absolutely. I don’t know how people who are loners get along. What would life be without friends?