Jean Payne: The silent generation speaks

Beth KinnaneFountain City, Get Up & Go

When former Knox County Executive Tommy Schumpert was asked to describe native Fountain Citian Jean Payne, the question stopped him in his tracks.


“Gosh. Where do I start and where do I stop?” he asked. “She has been such a blessing in my life and in my family’s life. She’s a jewel. She’s just the top of anything she ever tried to do.”

Payne retired from teaching government and history at Central High School in 1984. She helped manage Schumpert’s successful bids for Knox County trustee and two terms as county executive along with her late husband, Gene. Yes, Gene and Jean. Schumpert refers to them as Mr. Gene and Mrs. Jean.

“She would have been a great coach,” he said. “Never cut corners. She knew the importance of getting out to the voters, how you’ve got to make contact.”

The Jean Payne fountain at Fountain City Library

Much beloved by her former students, Payne has just wrapped up her ninth decade around the sun and has forgotten more about history than most will ever learn. She still lives in the same house she’s been in since 1970 accompanied by her dog, Bailey. She lost her husband of over 60 years on the cusp of the Covid-19 pandemic and shortly thereafter one of her closest friends, retired Central history teacher Connie Wilkes.

She doesn’t have a computer or a smart phone and is a bit aghast at the thought of social media in general. She still writes letters and considers it a dying art. But, yes, she said, despite the personal losses and the isolation brought on by Covid mitigation protocols, she’s doing just fine, thank you very much.

“Really, anyone who thought putting on a mask or doing any of these things to help stop the pandemic was a sacrifice wouldn’t have made it through the Great Depression or Word War II,” Payne said. “They don’t know what sacrifice is. I’m from what’s known as the Silent Generation. We did what needed to be done and what we were told to do.”

Growing up in Fountain City, Payne was Wilma Jean Dobbins. She was raised in a house built by her grandfather on Cedar Lane between Montrose and Midlake Drive. She walked with her friends to Fountain City Elementary School, which she attended with her future husband (they both graduated from Central in 1950 and attended Fountain City United Methodist Church).

“I had lots of friends. I had friends at school and friends at church. Everybody knew everybody,” she said. “I loved them and they loved me.”

The onset of WWII, however, opened her eyes to a bigger but not always kinder world. As many industries converted operations to support the war effort, her father moved to Akron, Ohio, to weld dirigibles (used to hunt for Axis Powers’ submarines) for Goodyear. When he was able to find enough housing for the family, she and her mother joined him there in 1942.

“There were thousands of people moving there, from all over the place,” Payne said. “It was the biggest place I had ever been. It was the first time I saw an escalator. Akron became a city that was operating 24/7. Everyone was working on shifts. You had all of these people thrown together all of a sudden.”

Her mother also found employment, and most mornings it was up to Jean to get herself out the door to school as her parents were already off to work. But for a child who had always enjoyed school, it suddenly became a rather unpleasant experience for her.

“For such a multi-cultural society like that at that time, you’d think it would be more tolerant,” she said. “The word bullying was not part of the vocabulary.”

But bullying is exactly what she got. Other children made fun of her southern accent, asked if her daddy was running moonshine, if she lived in a log cabin back home and if her move to Akron was the first time she ever wore shoes. She was also asked to hold her hair up so they could see her red neck.

“You must understand, I was a child who loved school, but now I didn’t want to go,” she said. “I started making up excuses not to go. I was sick or I had a headache or a stomach ache. It never occurred to me to tell my parents what was going on.”

So, on yet another day when she was making up excuses not to walk to school in the snow – “Akron was always in snow” – there was an unexpected knock on the door. She opened the door and saw a face she recognized.

“There in front of me was Leah, with her Black face looking at me from inside her bright red snow suit,” she said. “She looked at me and said ‘I have come to walk to school with you.’ Leah became my best friend while we remained there.”

At any other time in later history this story might not seem so significant. But in 1942, in (mostly) pre-integration America, it speaks volumes.

“I tell that story often when I am asked about people who’ve had an influence on my life,” Payne said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I don’t recall Leah’s last name, and I never saw her again after we moved home. But what does that speak to us today? Words matter, don’t they? She looked at me and saw what was happening and knew I needed a friend. How many doors need to be knocked on? How many people need to hear “I’ve come to walk with you.’ How many churches need to do this? How many neighbors?”

She said those words have informed her approach to life ever since.

“Who raised me? It wasn’t just my parents,” Payne said. “I was raised by the institutions of Fountain City, the church, the school, the library. I have always felt a responsibility to return the blessings that were given to me. The need is there today. I’ve come to walk with you.”

Beth Kinnane is Jean Payne’s great niece and the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com

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