Early in the morning on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, Jeannette Wetmore died in her mother’s arms, surrounded by the love of close friends. She was 39. Previously undetected cancer led to the growth of tumors that put pressure on her brain stem. Her death came as a shock to her family, friends and Union College. She had lived a largely unimpaired life until that week, and despite several trips to the hospital, the cancer was not diagnosed until hours before her death.
A 2003 graduate and college librarian since 2008, Jeannette was a self-described collector of words. With a large vocabulary comes the gift of precision–having the right words. Yet, as her family, friends, coworkers and students reach for words to describe her and the hole left in their lives and community, none seem big enough, none are precise enough:
Firstborn. True friend. Reader. Mountains. Water rippling over rocks. Flautist. Scrabble player. Baker. Librarian. Genuinely caring. Patient. Teacher. Mentor.
Those words suffuse memories of Jeannette, but none are sufficient.
Connecting with Heart and Soul
Jeannette was born on June 27, 1976, to Calvin and Carol Wetmore. The family moved from Hinsdale, Ill., to North Carolina, where she grew up loving the mountains, rivers and reading.
The family often read together. “We spent hours reading, and she never got tired of being read to. She could outlast us,” her mother remembered.
From an early age, Jeannette wanted to share her love of reading. Years before she became a librarian, her father remembered waking up to find three Bible story books floating in the family’s 50-gallon fish tank. “Maybe she thought they needed to read them, too,” he chuckled. The family salvaged the books, and one of them still sat on her book shelf, an homage to Jeannette’s early years and continuing love for books.
Her nieces are the same way, shared her younger brother, Jeremy. “My daughters love to read. We don’t get many requests to read to them anymore, because our oldest daughter reads to the younger one. They’re much like Jeannette in many ways.” Jeannette lovingly curated collections of developmentally-appropriate books for her nieces, Emily, Abigail and Dominique, and her nephew Carter.
But Jeannette wasn’t always reading. “She loved camping, loved the water and the mountains in North Carolina,” Mrs. Wetmore says. “And she always loved music.” Jeannette was an accomplished flautist who had taken many years of flute lessons. She played in Union’s band while she was a student, and joined the orchestra as a college employee. A corner of her apartment was dedicated to music, and Jeannette frequently played to relax and unwind.
Baking, British dramas and watching the Great British Bake-Off with friends were other favorite hobbies, as was playing Scrabble and other word games. “She was a master at getting the triple word scores,” shared Mrs. Wetmore. “I could never beat her.”
Jeremy remembers the one time he bested his sister at Scrabble while the two were in their early 20s. “I beat her once, three times in a row, and never again. She was flabbergasted–I actually beat her.”
Nothing, aside from family, was more important to Jeannette than her friends. “She had such good friends here, and she enjoyed her time with her circle of friends more than anything,” said Mr. Wetmore. “They were very special to her.” Her mother says Jeannette considered her friends to be her extended family. Even though most of her blood relatives lived far away, “She told me that she had a family here at Union,” she said. “She connected with them heart and soul.”
Expanding Union’s Vocabulary
Jeannette originally declared a major in elementary education when she enrolled at Union College, but she switched to English when Dr. Bill Fitts, one of her English professors, told her and her parents during a Parents Weekend conference that she needed to be an English major. “That’s where the seed was planted,” said Mrs. Wetmore. She graduated from Union College in 2003 with degrees in English and communication then earned a master’s degree in information science at the University of North Carolina. “She had a love of books and degrees in English and communication, and she realized how well-suited she was to being a librarian,” her mother shared.
As a student, Jeannette had worked in the Union College library with former librarian DeForest Nesmith. He knew Jeannette had recently completed her master’s in library science, and remembered her abilities from her time as a student worker. He campaigned for her to return and take his place when he retired. Sabrina Riley, library director, interviewed Jeannette and hired her to serve as Union’s public services librarian in 2008.
Jeannette handled many responsibilities in Union’s library, including reference requests, one-on-one library instruction and research lessons to help students learn about the resources available to them. Her professional skills were easy to see, and so were her personal skills. “Students connected with her,” Riley said. “She cared about them, and she was passionate about helping people.”
Riley had started a research consultation service before Jeannette came on board, but Jeannette suggested renaming it the Research Assistance Program, and the program took off. “Jeannette was so caring and had so much concern for the students,” Riley said. “She never made them feel as if their questions were dumb. She coached them and helped them shape their research topics into something they could work with. She was really good at that.”
Jeannette was also tasked with hiring and managing student workers. She didn’t have prior experience in that area, but she didn’t let that stop her. “She put so much effort into being a good supervisor,” Riley said. “She did research and read about managing and hiring employees. She taught herself how to do it well. Our group of workers is so good, thanks to how well she selected and trained people.”
Jill Donald, a junior English and language arts education major, has worked under Jeannette’s leadership for three years and says she was constantly struck by Wetmore’s patience and caring personality. Once, when Donald made an error while setting up a complicated interlibrary loan, Wetmore calmly shouldered the problem. “It was going to take hours to fix, but Jeannette forgave me. She said, ‘It’s ok. I’ll fix it.’ And she just fixed it.”
Donald, who was recently promoted to library supervisor, says that Jeannette’s approach helped shape her own supervisory skills. “For Jeannette, something would happen, and the next day it was like it didn’t happen. She’d talk to you and it was over. You were forgiven and it was done; she wouldn’t hold things over your head. I’ve learned that when I get upset about something, I have to talk with the person and then it’s done. Jeannette was so patient with all of us. I learned from her forgiveness, letting go, and patience.”
Donald says Jeannette had a huge impact on her daily life.“The hardest part of this for me is realizing that so many students on campus didn’t know her like I did,” says Donald. “She changed my experience here. I feel badly for them that they didn’t know her. Sometimes she was the reason I got through the day. I’m sure everyone here has someone to turn to, but I feel bad that they didn’t have her as that person. I’m going to miss her.”
One of Jeannette’s professional passions was collection development. She recognized that library budgets are tight, and spent her career working to improve the services and functions of the Union College library. Now, her family has asked that all memorial gifts in Jeannette’s name be earmarked for the college library and used for purchasing new books. “Working with students and collection management were her specialties,” Riley confirms. As a final gift, these new books—collections of words—in Jeannette’s memory will continue to help students improve their personal and scholastic performance, and grow their vocabularies.
“Jeannette would tell me that her hobby was collecting words,” Mrs. Wetmore remembers. “She helped us widen our vocabularies.”
Family, friends, Union College faculty and staff, and students said goodbye to Jeannette Wetmore with heavy hearts and wider vocabularies. Those whose lives she touched have collected memories and words by which they’ll remember her.