Graciousness and Gusto

When I first call to talk with Jean Stimpson, the wife of recently elected mayor, Sandy Stimpson, she asks if she can call me back; she’s feeding a baby. Her grandchildren are visiting from out of town, and she doesn’t want to miss a moment of their time together. For Jean Stimpson, family always comes first. And it always has.

Stimpson learned everything she would need to know about being Mobile’s first lady while growing up the youngest of four children in Brewton.

Like her husband, her father, John Richard Miller Jr., worked in the lumber business. Her mother, Virginia, stayed home to raise Jean, her brothers and sister, but the town itself reverberates in her memories. “In Brewton, you came home when it got dark. Your parents never worried about where you were, ” she says. “It gave children a lot of freedom and independence.”

She attended Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., majoring in history, and it was then, at age 19, that she met her future husband. “Sandy was dating one of my friends, and she and I went down to visit at Alabama, ” says Jean of one of their first encounters. However, the two didn’t start dating until Jean transferred to Alabama her junior year. “Sandy is a fun person to be around, ” she says, “and I knew he would always do the right thing.”

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They married two and a half years later in 1975,  uniting two different, yet complimentary, approaches to life. While Sandy was detail oriented and focused on goals, she preferred spontaneity and being more relaxed.

Her parents, who celebrated their 70th anniversary last October, provided an invaluable lesson, she says. “Mama came first with Daddy, and Daddy came first with Mama. That’s how it was, ” she says.  Her father was the kind of man who always sent his wife red and yellow roses on special occasions. “We grew up knowing that was the primary relationship in our family.”

Three generations of Stimpson women unite. Back row, left to right: Beth Stimpson, Christina Stimpson, Nancy Stimpson Vandervoort, Virginia Stimpson Jeffery, Jeanie Jeffery. Middle row, left to right: Caroline Stimpson, Jean Stimpson, Molly Stimpson. Bottom: Annie Jeffery.

Her own children, sons Billy and Sands and daughters Virginia Jeffery and Nancy Vandervoort, are now grown and have gleened similar life lessons from their parents. “They always put their faith first, and then family. This has had the greatest impact on my marriage and my role as a wife and mother, ” says Virginia, a stay-at-home mother of five.

Jean has formed a close-knit bond with her children’s spouses as well. Daughter-in-law Christina discovered how welcoming her new family could be shortly after marrying Sands. When they were first wed, they moved in with the Stimpsons as they prepared for an overseas job opportunity. “Weeks turned to months, and eventually the move was called off, ” Christina remembers. “We found ourselves six months married and living in Sands’ high school bedroom. The good news, though, is I ended up developing a relationship that I would not otherwise have with my in-laws, especially Ms. Jean. She truly is the kindest, most generous person I have ever met.” 

With two of their four children’s families living out of town, time together is precious. The family hunting camp in Clarke County figures prominently nowadays. “Hunting, fishing, being outdoors, going on walks, and visiting with all our cousins and extended family has been something that we treasure, ” Jean says.

But more intimate girl time is just as important; Jean holds dear the time spent with her daughters. Their most cherished tradition, a yearly mother-and-daughter retreat, means a weekend at the beach by themselves where they can laugh, reconnect and regain perspective on life and womanhood. “Whether it is mothering, entertaining or everything in between, she does it with a welcoming heart, ” Nancy muses about her mother. “She approaches every situation with grace.” 

In Her Own Words

Who were the women you looked up to growing up? 
I idolize my mother and my grandmother. My mother’s greatest qualities are her genuine personality and her loyalty to friends. She has a lively and colorful sense of humor and taught me to enjoy life while not taking myself too seriously. My grandmother was a strong, independent woman who lived to 94. I admired her ability to accept change over her lifetime with ease and grace. This continues to amaze me as I age in this ever-changing world.

Which Mobile women do you most admire?
My mother-in-law, Margaret Stimpson, was someone I admired for 40 years because of her love and loyalty to her husband,  her children and her friends. I have always admired Vaughan Morrissette for many of the same reasons. In addition to her love of family and loyalty to friends, she continues to give of herself to our city, state and other community groups and organizations. Vaughan does all of this with boundless energy and graciousness.

Tell us about your favorite community projects.
Over the years my focus has been at my church, Ashland Place United Methodist, and my children’s school. In recent years, Sandy and I have committed our time and resources to Prichard Preparatory School because we saw a way to give children a chance for an educational opportunity that they would otherwise not have. Being involved with Prichard Prep has probably had as great an impact on us as it has the children.

What makes a Southern woman so distinctive? 
Her strength, independence and style. The slower pace of life enables her to enjoy unhurried activities, such as going to the beach, watching a sunset, visiting at the kitchen table, fishing, boating and being surrounded by nature. Southern women are distinctive because they continue to pride themselves on their manners, and they instill this in their children.

How has being the first lady of Mobile changed your routine?
My daily life has not changed too much. It has allowed me to meet many new people in our city and form new friendships and relationships. I consider it an honor, but at home I’m still Mom – “Honey” to my grandchildren – and that’s the way I love it.

How have women’s roles changed in your lifetime?
Women’s roles have changed extraordinarily. The number of women in the workforce is the biggest change I’ve witnessed over the last 35 years. It’s truly inspiring to see women doing it all – reaching all of their goals – whether that be raising a family, or becoming a CEO. 

As leaders, as wives, as mothers and as sisters, Southern women have so much to offer the world: their charm, intellect, graciousness and gusto are unmatched. My recommendation, however, is to make sure you have your priorities in order. I don’t think it was intended that any woman sacrifice her family to save a company or save the world.

Quick Facts

Grandchildren –  Annie, 9; Charlie, 7; Sam, 4; Will, 4; Molly, 2; Jim, 20 months; Henry and Jeanie,
18 months; and Caroline, 6 months
Favorite pastimes – Going to the beach; gardening
Favorite way to spend a Friday night – Eating Downtown at any of the wonderful restaurants.
“We love to attend ArtWalk.”
Favorite meals –  “I haven’t met a food I didn’t like or a meal I didn’t enjoy.”
Fondest memory of her dad – “My dad loved being at the beach and fishing in the Gulf so I have many wonderful memories being there with him.”
Favorite hymn – “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” 

Go-To Dish

Jean’s West Indies Salad

This recipe is the first lady’s go-to entertaining dish.

1 Vidalia onion, chopped
1 pound crabmeat, picked over
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup apple cider vinegar
4 ice cubes in a 1/2 cup,  then filled with water
salt and pepper, to taste

1. In a bowl, combine the onion and crabmeat; pour the rest of the ingredients over top. Chill and serve. Serves 4.

text by Elyzabeth Wilder • photos by Todd Douglas

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