The last time I saw Jean Lenz it was pretty much like the first time — and all the times in between. I smiled throughout the conversation, listening to her talk.
It was last summer, as I recall, on the sidewalk between Flanner and Grace. We were heading in opposite directions, but we stopped and took the time to talk. As always, she had a few stories to tell. Jean always made me smile with her stories. Mostly it was the way she told them.
Always fresh, amused and unaffected, she brought a certain incredulous but affectionate cheer to the tales of undergrad escapades, the things the young men and women tried to get away with, like the time a mob of streakers showed up at the door of Farley. Jean always had this fun, “Can you believe it?” attitude toward life’s odd little corners.
But her stories could also be thick with empathy and love when she talked of growing pains, a death in the family or a parent’s divorce. You could tell she felt the student’s pain, too. The compassion she showed to a Chinese graduate student paralyzed when struck by a car one drizzly night on Notre Dame Avenue was an exacting measure of her big heart.
Jean had a million stories from her days as rector here and her years in the Office of Student Affairs. She was a big, glowing candle in the middle of Notre Dame’s journey into co-education, a solid, embracing refuge and home. She was beloved by generations of women. She epitomized Notre Dame.
In many ways, Jean was the place where many students got their Notre Dame education, where the institution delivered on its promises or not. She was right in the fray with them — very serious business. And yet one of Jean’s charms was that she didn’t seem to take herself too seriously. She really enjoyed what she did; she really enjoyed — really loved — the students.
I wasn’t surprised to hear she had died this past weekend. I had been stunned late last fall when I heard her condition was terminal. I was also surprised by her age; she was 81. Jean was ageless, always youthful. I think it was the students who kept her young, and the joy she took in following their journeys through a lifetime.
I knew Jean mostly in passing. I would interview her for magazine articles, have conversations in hallways and on sidewalks. She regaled me with stories, her tales speaking eloquently of Notre Dame.
Jean was also a member of this magazine’s editorial advisory board, representing the students and student affairs office. I loved having her at the meetings — meetings that could get serious, even a little tense at times.
Jean always offered a wise touch and a light demeanor, reminding us it is people who really matter, how the people are affected by a decision, and showed how not to make ourselves more important than we were. She seemed to have such a good sense for what really mattered in life.
In fact, I always thought of Jean Lenz as one of those who led the way. She was one of the people at this place who lived in a way that showed the rest of us how it should be done. And yet Jean was also such a model of goodness that the rest of us could hardly live up to the example she set.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.