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Logical Mom - an angel in the outfield

Posted Monday, August 30, 2010, at 8:50 PM

Two years ago, as I was wandering the grounds of the Missouri State Fair, someone hijacked my e-mail address and sent a message to everyone on my contact list that said I was stranded in Britain and needed immediate financial help. At least 5 or 6 people immediately called me.

As soon as I could, I e-mailed everyone to let them know I was alive and well. We reminded each other how nasty it sometimes gets in cyberspace -- this was just another annoyance.

But my annoyance over the incident quickly disappeared when I received this laugh-out-loud response from my dear friend, Jean Marie Winn Ulrick:

"The title alone was a dead giveaway, as I cannot possibly imagine you writing 'i need you help' even as an email subject line. As I suspected, the body of the email appeared to have been written by an illiterate. And so I said to myself, 'Obviously someone has hacked into her email.' I thought about giving you a call, but decided that at least half the people in your address book would do so, so I didn't."

No wonder her children called her "Logical Mom."

We met on the first day of school in late August 1956. Just entering fifth grade, I didn't know a single soul. Jean Marie, with her straight brown hair, her glasses and her earnest look, was the first child who spoke to me.

She asked my name and gave me hers. Then she offered the information that she'd been born in California and that her last name was not the same as her mother's. These two facts alone made her different, but what really set her apart was her keen intelligence.

When she asked me where I'd gone to school the year before, she didn't say, as even adults sometimes did, "Where's Tripoli, Libya?" She already knew.

In some ways, we were alike. We both spoke very rapidly and had to be prompted to speak up in class. I wore glasses, too, and my hair was also straight and brown. We shared a passion for reading. We were different in some ways, too. I was very small for my age, and scrawny. She was closer to average height and, well, not scrawny, but round.

Neither of us was very good at sports, and so it was often the case that we were picked last for the softball teams that were a daily feature of recess. We preferred to be on the same team -- that way, each of us had company in the farthest reaches of the outfield, where none of the girls in our class ever hit a ball.

We stayed close during grade school, but in high school we didn't see much of each other. We'd wave between classes as we rushed from classroom to classroom, but it was harder to stay in touch.

On one notable occasion in the spring of our senior year, we attended a program on the campus of the University of Nebraska, along with hundreds of other prospective freshmen. When it was over, Jean and I strolled coolly into the Nebraska Union and took seats in the cafeteria, hoping we looked as if we belonged there.

Jean opened her purse and pulled out a fresh pack of cigarettes.

With the smooth movement of a long-practiced smoker, she zipped open the pack, withdrew a cigarette, tapped it, filter down, on the table, then struck a match and lit the cigarette, tossing the match into the ashtray with a flick of her wrist and just a little bit of style.

And then we watched as the match, which wasn't quite out, ignited the cellophane wrapper she had earlier removed from the pack of cigarettes and crumpled into the ashtray.

It was hard to look cool and stylish as the flames died down.

After graduation, staying in touch became very difficult. We wrote sporadically, and for a few months in 1965, we were briefly both in Albuquerque, N.M. at the same time. She'd married an airman, who was stationed at a nearby base. We celebrated my then-boyfriend's 21st birthday together in their home, an 8-by-30 foot trailer that also housed a multitude of cats and two dogs.

And then we lost track of each other. Jean and George were transferred to Japan, where she logically concluded that the smartest use of her time was to learn Japanese so she could teach English. She rapidly moved on to teaching business classes and editing and translating books.

When they returned to the U.S., she worked as a precision tool and die maker in a small Nebraska town and attended college classes while her family expanded to include four sons and a daughter.

I was very happy to renew our friendship at the 20-year high school reunion in 1984; we managed to stay in contact after that.

After I moved to Marshall in 2006, we took a detour to visit her on a business trip to Omaha. After her retirement in 2007, she and George passed through Marshall on their way to visit their son in Springfield. I was surprised to learn during one of our visits that she collected firearms as a hobby and bought rental properties on the side.

"My favorite gun right now is a Sig-Sauer," she said the last time I saw her. And "we like to play Monopoly with real money," she said of the rentals.

We planned more visits, but fate laughs at the plans of mere humans. She became ill just before Christmas 2008 and did not live to see the following spring.

At her funeral, the church near rural DeWitt, Nebr., was filled nearly to capacity with friends and family, including her seven grandchildren. One of her sons delivered the eulogy, which was salted with plenty of stories about "Logical Mom" -- the little girl whom I can still see as my bookish and brilliant 10-year-old companion in the outfield. As a light rain fell, her boys carried the casket a short distance to her grave on that peaceful Nebraska hillside.

As intelligent as she was, Jean could have chosen any life, any career. It wouldn't have surprised me if she'd decided to be a rocket scientist, a writer, a teacher - any one of those or all three at once. And sometimes I wondered, though I never asked, if she ever regretted her choice to live a quieter life in a quieter place.

It was not until I walked into the church for her funeral, when I saw so many people there to say goodbye because they loved and honored her, that I realized her choices for herself had always been perfect. Jean's true genius was in knowing her own path and following it -- in being her own woman and never letting conventional wisdom get in her way. Being "Logical Mom" was both her choice and her highest calling.

Contact Kathy Fairchild at kfairchild@marshallnews.com.

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As I read your words about your dear friend, I feel a sense of loss at not having had the pleasure and honor of knowing her personally. I wish to express my sincere condolences to you and this lovely womans family.

At the same time, I wish to express my gratitude to you for helping me to allow my mind to wander back over the years once again with my mother. I continue to miss her physical prescence, and always will, but Nana is continually with me in my heart. Like your friend, Nana's life was filled with choices to be made, and make them she did. I believe Mom would have been honored to be a friend of Jean's, as well as a friend to you, Kathy.

Thank you for a brief look at the life of your friend, and for bringing to remembrance once again my mother, Lillian, better known as Nana.

Nana, look in on Jean when you get a chance, and say hello, OK?

-- Posted by mikelh on Sat, Sep 4, 2010, at 11:34 AM

john & seana: I'm happy you approve - Jean was an important person in my life for more than 50 years.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Tue, Aug 31, 2010, at 7:24 AM


Thank you for keeping my mother alive through these stories. It was a pleasure to meet you on the day of my mother's funeral as you shared the story about my mother trying to keep her cool after lighting a fire in the ashtray at UNL.

My mother certainly was the most logical person I have ever met. Like my sister, I also wish I could talk to her just one more time. I look forward to the day when I can see her again in Heaven. I know that sounds so cliche, but I truly believe it. Thanks again for sharing.

-- Posted by julrick on Tue, Aug 31, 2010, at 6:18 AM

Thank you for writing this lovely story about my mother. I miss her so much. I love how logical she was. She as always there for me (even at 3 in the morning). She always gave the best advice and was the best mother I God could have ever given me. I wish every day that I could talk to her just one more time but I know that isn't possible. Again, thank you for the article on my mother.

-- Posted by seana on Tue, Aug 31, 2010, at 2:26 AM

OKR and taxedpaper: Thanks very much for your comments. Jean was one of a kind - I miss her every day.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Mon, Aug 30, 2010, at 8:52 PM

You make me wish I knew her, too.

-- Posted by taxedpayer on Mon, Aug 30, 2010, at 8:21 PM

Great way to honor your friend, and the lessons that she provided. Well done.

-- Posted by Oklahoma Reader on Sun, Aug 29, 2010, at 11:27 PM

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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.
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