Take Your Cookies When They’re Passed: A conversation with Jean Coblentz

Jean photo

At age ninety, Jean is writing a book called Take Your Cookies When They’re Passed. Cookies, or opportunities, come unexpectedly, not necessarily when you’re looking for them. She encourages all of us to “keep your mind open, and prepare yourself for taking advantage of opportunities. Study your surroundings, and you will create positive change that will help you attain current and long-term plans for the things that you feel are important for your own talents and those of others.”

Jean started writing the book one year ago in a memoir writing class for elders. One of her classmates asked who gave her the first cookie that changed her life, and Jean replied with a story.

In the mid-1970’s, Jean was Chairman of the Tally Ho Horse Show, a program to raise money for children at Stanford Children’s Hospital. When the fundraiser was over, Jean wrote thank you notes to all who had participated, including to Dick Bennett. A few days later, Dick called Jean and asked if she had ever considered working for him at Stanford. She told him that she had not, whereupon he invited her to work with him in the Office of Development. Years later, when Jean asked why he chose her, he said, “We have about 75 people who run programs here, and yours is the only time that anybody has written me a thank you note.”

That marked the beginning of over two decades during which Jean worked as a development officer at Stanford. She says, “Everything came out of that thank you note. That’s how I got started, and I’m still there. I don’t currently go to the office, and I don’t get a check, but that’s not important anymore.” She could not have predicted it at the time, but now she sees that “one cookie given way back has had a journey, has found itself in almost all that has made a difference in my life.”

Jean has dedicated her life to giving, and still, “My experience shows me that I get back more than I feel that I give to Stanford. By keeping me involved as a volunteer, Stanford has helped me stay busy and current to this day. Stanford has not let go of me, and I have not let go of Stanford.”

Jean has been devoted to volunteer work since childhood. Born in China, the daughter of medical missionaries, she was home-schooled by her mother, and her father had a leper colony. On Sundays, Jean went to the leper colony and played the organ. Her family moved back to the United States when Jean was in seventh grade, and her father bought a medical practice in Manteca, California. Jean wrote poems and articles for the weekly Manteca newspaper. One of a small handful of women aspiring to go to college at the time, she received a scholarship to attend Stanford.

Jean’s first job in college was as an errand-girl for Mrs. David Starr Jordan, widow of the founding President of Stanford University. She later worked as a babysitter for the grandchildren of the second President of Stanford, Mrs. John Casper Branner. Jean has met the wives of every single Stanford president. She became a member of Cap and Gown as a junior, served as President of the Alumnae Board, and is now a lifetime member of the board.

When I asked what advice she would give herself at age 20, Jean shared her wisdom: “Take time to analyze yourself. What will fulfill you? Are you the kind of person that needs a four-year degree and then another four years of study before you feel that you have something very important to give? By your actions, create for your children a portrait of giving back, so the treasures, education, and contact given to you can be refreshed.”