Ramon Hendrix was poor, uneducated and underconfident when he was a student at South High years ago.
Who knows which way he might have gone had he not been encouraged by Principal Jeannine Thompson? She looked past the stop signs and saw the power and potential of the open road. Today, Hendrix is the principal of Stockdale High -- where Thompson ended her own illustrious career -- and says he owes his success to a woman many call Aunt Jeannine.
I went to South and though I didn't have Thompson as a teacher, I still remember her larger-than-life presence. So I needed no coaxing to when Thompson's friend Judy Henderson emailed a few days ago with news about the legendary educator.
Ten months ago Thompson, who has been retired since 1995, suffered a massive stroke. Some of us wouldn't have made it, but she's not some of us. Thompson was on life support for three days. She couldn't swallow, speak or use her right side.
Thompson was moved from Mercy to Health South (the staff said they'd never seen so many flowers, cards and therapy dogs for one patient), then to skilled nursing and assisted living at Glenwood Gardens.
"When she was admitted to the ICU at Mercy, I introduced myself as her advocate," Henderson said. "The RN said, 'Ms. Thompson was my principal at South. I am caring for her during my shift and don't you worry about her. She will get the best care.'"
Wednesday, I visited her at Glenwood Gardens. Thompson was upbeat, able to move around without her walker, and chatty.
During therapy, even when she couldn't talk, she could still sing, so I asked if she would sing a song and, without hesitation, she launched into "Amazing Grace."
"I am a miracle," she said, without bragging.
Since her stroke, Thompson has seldom been alone. Friends rallied and organized an advocate group who spoke to doctors, communicated with her family in North Carolina and never left her bedside. Every Saturday for seven months, friend and retired math teacher Fran Scott picked up her laundry and returned it on Sunday washed and ironed.
"Jeannine never ironed her clothes when she was well," Henderson said.
For months, friends took her to appointments, shopping, dinner, Rotary, teacher luncheons and credit union functions.
A team? I want one, but if I had one, people would be quitting or demanding to be traded. Thompson didn't have enough places on the bench, having put together a loyal squad through her 38-year career.
While working as a counselor at South, she earned her administrative degree from USC (she graduated from the University of North Carolina), and went on to become the dean of students, vice principal and principal. Thompson didn't just teach; she coaxed, applauded and preached the gospel of higher education.
Thompson oversaw construction at Stockdale High, selected the team name, the school colors, the fight song and hired the entire staff.
She was a photographer (she took pictures at the games and gave copies to the players), an active Rotarian, a member of the board at Kern Schools Federal Credit Union, sang in the First United Methodist Church Choir and founded three bridge groups.
Thompson is on the comeback trail. She can walk, talk in short sentences and her megawatt smile has returned. Wherever she goes, she finds people she knows.
Last Sunday, there was a goodbye party for Thompson at the First United Methodist Church (her niece and nephew flew her to her new home in Asheboro, N.C., where she joins family and "can see her beloved Tarheels play basketball.").
One hundred forty-six well wishers attended the party. Thompson was radiant. The room was decorated in pastels, her favorite colors. The greeting line was long but worth the wait.
"There was a performance called 'The Many Faces of Jeannine,'" Henderson said. "There were spoofs featuring 'athletes' and 'cheerleaders' played by teachers that Jeannine had hired. The choir sang, and Jeannine sang with them."
A Rotarian read a poem he'd written for Thompson, a credit union board member told a story about her meeting Michael Jordan. A Tarheel basketball player came on stage imploring Thompson to return to North Carolina to root for the team. They almost had to turn on the overhead sprinklers so the guests would leave.
Henderson quoted Thompson's niece, Lory Beth, as saying: "I guess Aunt Jeannine didn't need to have her own children because she had her students who fulfilled her life."
Aunt to many. Mother, mentor and cheerleader for others. Daughter of North Carolina going home. Herb Benham Californian Columnist