Everywhere I go with Jean Brenneman, she can find someone she knows. She loves to make friends. She’s a very outgoing person, but even when she’s not trying to strike up a friendship, people seem drawn to her.
Here’s an example. In October my wife Emmy and I flew with Jean to Nashville, Tennessee. It was a work trip for those two, and I decided to tag along. Jean’s seat was across the aisle and a couple rows back from us. Before long, she was involved in a friendly conversation with the young woman next to her. It went on quite a while, and later we learned that Jean had gotten the inside scoop on all the best things to do in Nashville.
As the two were happily chatting away, I leaned over to Emmy and said, “Of course Jean would make a new friend on the plane!” When we had deboarded, I mentioned this to Jean and she said, “I didn’t even start the conversation! I was planning to sit quietly and read my magazine, but apparently she wanted to talk.”
I’m sure part of the reason she did was because Jean is both likable and approachable. When Emmy started working with her, the two quickly became friends. And then Emmy learned just how many friends Jean has, not just here, but everywhere she goes. For instance, one time Emmy went with her to visit Jean’s daughter Anne at the University of North Carolina. While there, they walked into a restaurant in Chapel Hill, and the owner not only knew Jean by name but also what she wanted to eat.
Here’s another story. Last year Emmy and I hosted monthly potlucks at our house. Not long after one of the first gatherings, another friend of ours was hosting a get-together. She invited us and then asked, “Do you think Jean would want to come? She’s my new favorite person.”
The cool thing is, Jean’s not overly friendly in an annoying way. She isn’t one of those people who is outgoing because she craves attention. Instead, she reaches out to people because she is genuinely curious about them.
That curiosity spills over into other parts of life as well, especially food and travel. Jean grew up in Eldora, Iowa. Her parents were older when they married, and devoted most of their time to Jean and her sister. (Jean’s aunts and uncles worried that the two girls would be spoiled by that much attention.) It was “an idyllic little world,” she says. But as good as life was there, Jean has since cultivated a passion for travel.
Learning to travel
“There’s a difference between traveling and vacationing,” she explains. As an example, she contrasted the mission trip she took to Costa Rica last year with her church vs. the vacation an acquaintance also took to Costa Rica. “She stayed in a resort,” Jean recounts, “and when she talked about it, I thought it could have been a resort in the Virgin Islands or Hawaii, and the food could have been here in Cedar Rapids.”
There’s nothing wrong with vacationing. Jean has done that in the past, but these days when she travels she hopes for new experiences that can only be found in the places she visits. “I had the chance [in Costa Rica] to live and be around local people, go to their farmer’s market, have them prepare food for us, and I loved that. So, that’s what I want to do.”
Before our trip to Nashville, Jean did a ton of research online. She used airbnb to find us a house in East Nashville, where we met up with her daughter Anne. From there we embarked on a full itinerary of exploration. I was a little worried about too much activity–I like to sleep a lot and engage in unplanned wandering when I travel–but it worked out beautifully. Everything was no-pressure-optional, and I experienced some really cool places I never would have seen without Jean’s research.*
Other things I learned about Jean
This is an unusual profile for me in that most people I write about on Corridor Characters are not close friends. A major reason for creating the site was to share the diversity of Eastern Iowa, and I knew that wouldn’t happen if I didn’t branch out beyond my own circle of friends and acquaintances. So, when I sat down to interview Jean, I wasn’t expecting to learn much new information.
I should have known better. It was a reminder to me how most of my interaction with people doesn’t go much deeper than scratching the surface. For example, I hadn’t heard Jean talk much before about the deep love her parents had for each other or how devoted they were to their kids. She hadn’t ever described to me the difficult times of going through a divorce, raising her daughter as a single parent, or losing both her parents to cancer. Those aren’t topics that often come up in dinner conversations, and Jean isn’t the type of person to unnecessarily burden others with complaints.
She would also be quick to say that while there were moments of pain, her life has been full of good things as well. The tough times helped her grow closer to the people who matter most in her life, like her sister Mary or her daughter Anne.
We talked a lot about Jean’s past, about how her parents raised her and the type of mother she tried to be for Anne. But I also asked Jean about her future, what she hopes for. Her first answer was, “Contentment.” When I asked her to tell me more about that, she said, “I first was going to say ‘happiness’, and then I thought, that’s a lot to expect from life. I don’t think you can constantly be happy, but I think contentment is a good thing to try for. Because basically no matter where you are in life, there’s someone else who probably has it a whole lot worse. So, I don’t want to feel like, ‘Oh, poor me’. I want to be content in whatever situation I’m in.”
That’s a great outlook, I thought. But I also wanted to know more specifically what Jean wanted out of life. Travel was one, as discussed above. She also spoke about her hopes for Anne. Like most mothers, she wants her daughter to find a life companion. She worries that she wasn’t able to give her daughter a daily example of a strong, healthy marriage. She also wants Anne to find a job she enjoys.
Jean loves her own job. She’s the Chief Financial Officer at the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, where she gets to do the kind of work she enjoys for an organization that has a positive impact on the community. Still, as she looks toward the next ten years and the possibility of retirement, she is quick to say there’s more to life than work. “I will not be someone who retires at a certain age and is ‘done’,” she says. “I can’t imagine that.”
She also still holds out hope for love. “It’s only since Anne graduated college that I’ve really even been thinking about this seriously,” she says. “I’ve been single now for 20 years. I want to be part of a couple. I would like to share everyday life, go home at night and not just have Toby my cat as my companion!”
In the meantime, she’s not the type of person to wait around and feel lonely. She has good friends and plenty of them. If you’re reading this you may already be one of them! If not, just wait. You’ll probably run into her someday, and then you’ll see what I mean.
Story by Courtney Ball. Photos by Hannah White.
*Jean does the same thing at home. She loves to try new things in Cedar Rapids and show guests around the city. Since our conversation, Jean and I have toyed with the idea of a new regional travel site for which she and her friends would explore offbeat locations in Iowa and share their experiences.