- Tom Stafford Staff Writer
Clear-eyed and energetic, Springfielder Jean Braun turns 92 on Sunday.
She swims half a mile three days a week and, come April, plans to complete her 30th annual mile-long swim to raise money for diabetes prevention and care.
It’s worth underscoring that she began this lengthy tradition at age 62.
These essentials of Braun’s story are what Jerry Scafone of the Workout Warehouse mentioned when he suggested that I interview her.
I’m glad he did.
Because over the years, although I’ve discovered that a lineup of essential facts aren’t the real story at hand, they do point the way to a deeper, richer story that begins to emerge most often in the latter stages of an interview.
In Braun’s case, that richer story opens just before World War II — on a spring day in 1941 when Springfield High School Principal Charlie Fox called high school junior Jean Armstrong into his office and, as was his custom with students, announced his plans for her future.
Braun’s memory of it is clear.
“He said, ‘O.K., Jean, you’re going to go to college and you’re going to work your way through, (so) next year, you’re going to take shorthand and typing.”
And, in those days, that was that.
Braun found shorthand to be “like another language,” much like the French she had taken from Madame Nina Marie Ladd. And, as Fox had anticipated, the shorthand and typing “got me jobs in the summer.”
The jobs were at the old International Harvester Plant on the city’s East Side, where she worked the second trick in the office. Not far from the plant was Marston’s swimming pool, where she’d swum as a child and also would swim before work. There was no lap swimming, though. This was just for fun.
As a student at then Wittenberg College, she continued studying French and took up Spanish in her freshman year.
“That first semester, I spoke Spanish with a French accent,” she said.
Her professor was Edmundo V. de Chasca, a Guatemalan who spoke perfect French, German and Spanish and was teaching himself to speak Russian. His distinctive stylishness in the classroom was matched only by the stylish argyle socks favored by the history department’s Melvin D. Laatsch, also “a great professor,” Braun recalled.
But as the war came and changed the country, it changed what was to have been her future in education.
“They were trying to make women teachers, particularly elementary teachers, and I (wasn’t) meant for that,” she said.
So Braun majored in Spanish and English and used the shorthand and typing to land a job at then Wright Field.
Her future husband, Karl Braun, had been drafted while a student at Ohio State, returned there after his service, and was about to start his student teaching the day the Battle of the Bulge brought him to his knees.
“They found him sitting on a curbstone,” she said. He was suffering – and suffering is the word — a nervous breakdown.
So he joined her at Wright Field, working in the materials lab while she kept on as a clerk-typist elsewhere on base.
By the time they married in 1952, time was distancing him from the war, and in the college courses he took through the base Karl Braun “fell in love with slime molds,” she said.
The fruit born by this unromantic relationship is evident on the website of Ohio State University’s Museum of Biological Diversity’s Herbarium, which says it has “an excellent slime mold collection due mainly to the efforts of Mr. Karl Braun of Springfield, Ohio.”
It also led Mr. Braun to take his student teaching and begin a 28-year career as a high school science teacher, starting at Salem Local School, the name of which lives on in the West Liberty-Salem Local Schools.
His wife followed him into education two years later.
“It took me only a semester to do student teaching. I had to take British Lit(erature) again and a Spanish course,” she recalled.
Then, about 15 years after the earlier period of her adult life was planned there, she was back in Charlie Fox’s office for a meeting that planned her next 26 years.
Long-time Springfield High Spanish teacher Clarence Smith was retiring, and Fox said that that if Mrs. Braun went to a Spanish-speaking country for the summer to get up to speed on her conversational skills, she could have the job.
So on days during the summer of 1955, she would leave Havana’s Lincoln Hotel, walk to a park, and strike up a conversation.
“They were wonderful people, wonderful – clean and energetic,” she said.
And they certainly helped her to get up to speed.
“Cubans speak the fastest Spanish of all,” Mrs. Braun said, adding that, perhaps to maintain the pace, “They drop their esses.”
Her first couple of years in the classroom involved ramping up, finding ways to teach students the vagaries of the subjunctive voice often used in Spanish, and teaching them how to diagram sentences to gain an understanding of Spanish grammar.
In her second year, the students “were not all bright,” she said, “but they were interested and good,” two qualities that motivated her and helped her to feel at home in the classroom.
“I love high school kids. Those are the most wonderful years.”
During her 26½ years at Springfield and later South High School, she took three groups of students to Mexico, though only one with boys along. Even that one is memorable, not only for the difficulty introduced by the lack of a drinking age at the time, but by a hole in the floor of the bus they rode in and the boys’ great pride and beating a local basketball team.
Not long after her 1982 retirement, Mrs. Braun, who had been a member of the Workout Warehouse, took to the pool more regularly with Jean Smith, an affable and competitive sort. They figured out how many lengths of the pool made up a football field, expanded the number of football fields they swam, then converted to mileage. The extra laps in a warm pool helped improve Mrs. Braun’s flexibility and ease her arthritis symptoms.
Mrs. Braun also involved herself in Senior Olympics through what then was Elderly United and is now United Senior Services and saw her own competitive side come out. The year that she matched a senior man for the distance record of two miles, organizers turned back the distance limit to one mile.
The same pool at the old McGillivray YMCA hosted the first diabetes swim, which transferred to Wittenberg University for a while, and when the run ended there, Mrs. Braun began swimming her annual fundraising mile at the Workout Warehouse pool.
She reconnected with the high school-age students she so enjoyed when husband Karl was ill and living at Forest Glen and they were volunteering there.
“I would be at the nursing home from 10 in the morning until 6,” she said, arriving in time to help with lunch, though getting away to swim sometimes as well.
“Karl was happy that I had my swim days.”
Since his passing in 2014, she has volunteered at Forest Glen during lunch time, which not only adds an hour and a half of walking to her regular fitness regimen, but has her still rubbing shoulders with volunteers from Kenton Ridge and Catholic Central.
“When they come, I can just feel my blood rising again.”
Over the years, gravity has altered her height and doesn’t allow her to stand as long as she once did.
“Standing is no good anymore,” she said, just as the occasional cold front now causes her arthritis to flare up and keep her out of the pool from time to time.
But it hasn’t take the smile off her face or given any thought of giving up swimming.
“Why would I?” she asked. “I intend to swim as long as I live.”
“I don’t have any goal age-wise,” she quickly added.
Still, it’s a good bet that Jeannie Braun will remain her buoyant self for some time to come, taking life one lap at a time.