‘Understated and elegant’ Getting to know Jeannette Baum

By Mardi Ford, Guest Column July 10, 2009 02:36 pm

A grand lady passed away this week. Jeannette Baum was 89 years old when she died Tuesday. Though I didn’t know her long, I was very fond of her. I’ve been thinking about her a lot this week and how fortunate I am to have known her. Even if it was just a little.

Several people here at work have expressed their sorrow at the passing of this gracious lady. She certainly was a class act. The kind you don’t see much any more.

I met Jeannette in 2007 for an interview on her husband’s historic role at Grande Ronde Hospital. In the early 1960s, David Baum was instrumental in rallying the community in support of building a much-needed new hospital. When the new facility opened in 1966, Mr. Baum became board chair and served in that capacity until he unexpectedly died 11 years later.

Two things were obvious to me as we visited about their life together: Jeannette’s fierce admiration for all of her husband’s many accomplishments, and that she was still very much in love with him. She told me how they met, how it was to lose him at such a young age and life in between. She shared dozens of stories about her family and living in La Grande. We talked for nearly three hours.

I wish now I had been one of those reporters who tape record their interviews because I’ve forgotten a lot of the details. What I will never forget is how I felt about her. I thought she was lovely.

Sitting there in her living room, I wondered if we would become “related” some day. Though I kept it to myself, I knew that her grandson, Karl, and my daughter, Mollie, were just beginning to be in love. Our church had prayed for him while he was deployed to Iraq. And when he finally came home, we felt like we knew him. When he and Mollie first met at a morning service at Calvary Chapel, I think it was already meant to be.

Six months after my interview with Jeannette, Mollie and Karl were engaged. When we met again at a family gathering, I asked her if she remembered me.

“Of course I remember you,” she said quietly, laying her fragile hand gently on my arm, her blue eyes steady, her smile wide.

Jeannette had an easy way of making me feel special. She was understated and elegant. And she was real.

When she heard I had accepted a job at the hospital, she told me, “I’m there every Tuesday. You come have tea with us.” She and some of the other ladies of the auxiliary who volunteer at the hospital every day would often take a “tea break” mid-afternoon on Tuesdays outside the gift shop near their juice cart.

I began to look forward to seeing her there and she would always introduce me to the others.

“This is Mardi Ford. My grandson Karl is engaged to marry her daughter, Mollie. This is Mollie’s mother.”

I would sit for a bit, have a sip of apricot nectar and we’d talk wedding plans. As the Tuesdays went by, she still introduced me every time I stopped by, but we moved on to talk about other things — the wedding, the honeymoon, the paint colors Mollie picked out for their living room, Karl’s new hunting pup, Christmas plans — sharing our lives. As Jeannette and I discovered mutual joy in our newly blended families, my affection for her grew. I think that she liked me as much as I liked her. I hope so.

Regretfully, as my job became more demanding, the visits for tea became less frequent.

“I’m just too busy to sit down and visit today,” I’d think. “I will next time.”

And then in June during another family get together, she told me she was retiring from the hospital auxiliary. There would be no more tea parties with her. It had been a rough winter, and she was tired.

In my short time of knowing her, Jeannette taught me a couple Big Things About Life without even realizing it. And I never got to thank her.

There was something about her that reminded me of my own mother (who died in 1993), though they were not really alike. But that indefinable yet recognizable something I sensed in Jeannette, that reminded me of Mom, may have been partly why I was drawn to her. Whatever the reason, I will miss Jeannette. My life is richer for having known her. Even if it was just a little.

Mardi Ford is a Cove

resident. She is a former Observer reporter who is now the community relations manager at Grande Ronde Hospital.