The sun throbs like an angry blister. Crickets chirr in the ditchgrass, the sound rising and falling like a boat on the ocean. Jean’s head of flaming red hair is pulled back into a tight wick of a ponytail. She’s swimming in sweat, and when she stands up to stretch her back, the far edge of the pasture oscillates with heat. In her squinted, sweat-stung vision, the fence posts begin to wriggle like living, suffering things.
She drops a chunk of chert into her bucket, lifts it to test the weight.
She duckwalks the heavy steel receptacle back to the edge of the field, where her father waits on the tailgate of his truck in the shade of a silver maple tree. He’s holding a sweating beer can, smoking a cigarette and smiling. Jean drops her bucket, swipes at the flames of hair licking her forehead.
“A penny a rock, right?,” she asks.
“Yep, that’s what we agreed. How many you think you got there?”
“Like hell.” Her father says, without even pretending to look. “I’ll give you two dollars and fifty cents. That’s as high as I’ll go.”
“I was very much a perfectionist. Probably a bit neurotic, frankly. I just had to win. It’s not like my parents pushed me; I don’t know where my drive came from.”
However the drive materialized, it propelled her through a childhood and adolescence filled with achievements:
Captain of the debate team.
Winner of the 4H bareback horse-riding championship.
And then there’s the story of how she became valedictorian.
“At the beginning of the year the principal called five of us into his office and said that one of us would be valedictorian,” she recalls. “I went home and told my parents I had a shot at it. And my dad said, ‘You’ll never get that!’ I said, ‘You wanna bet?’ And he said ‘I’ll bet you a new car!’”
Jean’s parents weren’t rich, but they were people who kept their word. She did become valedictorian, and her dad did buy her a car. Not the British Racing Green Triumph Spitfire she wanted, but a perfectly acceptable Toyota Celica, the first foreign car her WWII veteran father had ever sprung for.
It seems clear to anyone paying attention that Jean’s parents knew exactly who they were dealing with. Instead of praise, they showered her with challenges, and that was all the push she needed.
“From a really early age, I was just always willing to work harder.”
Trying to describe Jean’s Kennedy’s hair is futile, but it’s important to try. So let’s just get this out of the way: it’s one hell of a head of hair.
If she were a member of the weasel family, she’d be hunted and trapped and you could buy $10,000 coats made of her hair. It’s a kind of golden auburn you only see in stained-glass cathedral murals, and is approximately as ethereal. It shines with an inner light, and to gaze upon it causes grown people to weep and renounce the sins of their own tonsorial choices. After meeting Jean, women fire their colorists. Balding men go home, punch the wall and give up on that whole hair-plugs dream. For what can be the point of half-measures in a world where Jean Kennedy can maintain such magnificence day after day after day? Better to be denuded than hold a trembling candle up to the roaring bonfire of her tresses.
Jean’s life did not start off on a farm. She was born in St. Louis, where her parents owned a home in a tight-knit Catholic neighborhood. Kids walked to school. Families went to church. Everyone went to the beer garden on Saturdays. It was just what you did.
Her dad had served in the Merchant Marines in World War II and, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, his ship was torpedoed by the Japanese and sank. He was among 20 members of the crew who survived. Years later he received the Medal of Honor from Eleanor Roosevelt.
Maybe skirting death changed him, who knows? But he always told Jean and her four siblings: You can do anything. And it stuck.
Eventually, he bought a tire company for $5,000—a company that’s still run by Jean’s brothers.
“When people asked my mom and dad if they had any employees,” Jean remembers, “They’d say: ‘No, we have five children."
“My parents believed working hard was its own reward. My dad worked even when he wasn’t healthy. He drank and smoked, and every year we were told he was about to die. Every year from the time he was 45 until he was 81.”
Things weren’t always easy. Sometimes Jean would watch reruns of “My Three Sons” and wonder what it would be like to have a dad like Fred McMurray. A guy who came home from his aeronautical engineering job and put on a cardigan sweater. But she’s proud of the lessons she learned from both her parents.
“They were honorable people. They made me who I am.”
If you were alive and living in St. Louis in January, 2000, I want you to close your eyes and think back to this moment.
It’s the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXVI. The St. Louis Rams are up 23-16, but the Tennessee Titans are on the move. Steve McNair completes a pass to Kevin Dyson, who is tackled at the 10-yard line. There are six seconds left in the game. One play separates St. Louis from the first football championship in its history.
McNair takes the snap, throws again to Dyson who catches it and is instantly wrapped up near the four-yard line. As he goes down, he stretches his left arm—still holding the football—toward the end zone. He comes up...one. Foot. Short. The Rams win.
If you were alive for this, and old enough to remember the decades of football futility that preceded it, you can probably think of many people to thank. Kurt Warner. Dick Vermeil. Georgia Frontiere. God.
Back in 1995, Jean was a communications director for the St. Louis Visitors and Convention Bureau. On a Monday morning, she and her boss were called into a mystery meeting downtown.
When she walked in, there was the mayor of St. Louis. And U.S. Representative Dick Gephardt. And three or four other local bigwigs.
“I found out it was a meeting about trying to bring the Rams to St. Louis,” Jean says. “I was the youngest person in the room. I just assumed I was there to take notes.”
The mayor explained that they had a conference room booked in Brentwood, California on Thursday—three days away--and they needed a script, presentation and boards that could help them convince the Rams ownership to move to St. Louis.
They wanted Jean to handle it.
She doesn’t remember much from those three days. But she got the work done. Obviously, the pitch was a success.
Jean became a mother in her late thirties, after believing for many years that she and her husband would not have children. Her son, Will, is now a senior at Mizzou, and it’s perhaps understandable that her eyes widen and beam whenever she speaks of him.
For all her academic and professional accomplishments, it’s clear the thing Jean is most proud of is not something she can put in a trophy case or list on a resume. It’s not even something she can see. But it’s there in the value system of her son, like a map Jean and her husband have been drawing for years.
“My son has a clear picture of our moral identities,” she says. “He knows his parents; he knows who we are.”
“Lots of people tell their kids what they stand for, but that’s not how they act on a day-to-day basis. I told Will the other day, kind of as a joke, that I was going to do something or other—something rash. And he looked at me and said: ‘You would never do that.’”
“And I just laughed because he’s right. I have no power to cajole him with stuff like that, because he knows what I stand for. He knows what I believe and what I’ll do in almost any situation.”
A few months ago, Will told his mother that his college girlfriend was stressing out about an upcoming test. Jean said something about how maybe this young lady seemed to be taking things too seriously, and reflected that Will seemed drawn to women who were sort of, you know, perfectionists. And Will said:
“Oh, you’re so right, Mom! How weird. She’s smart, pretty and an overachiever. Where in the world would I have gotten the idea that those are good qualities?”