Self-promotion can be difficult, so Jean asked me if I’d introduce her. My name is Kim Sandmann and I’m a golf pro, and writing is her thing, not mine, but here goes…
Jean is a woman of abundant talent (ha! okay, I really do mean this, but its funny to say it because you should have seen her in high school – I mean, she was the drum major of the band, someone who was a real dweeb). But she ended up becoming a national best-selling author, award-winning filmmaker, national champion athlete, motivational speaker, crusader for adoption reform, mother, wife – and for many of us, a lifelong friend. So I don’t know. Maybe being a member of the marching band has some value afterall. I have known her for over four decades – since the moment we lined up next to each other as freshmen in gym class – and I have gotten to watch her life story unfold.
Adopted as a baby, she grew up near me in Lafayette, California, the daughter of Betty and Lou Sacconaghi. We became acquainted at Del Valle High when Jean knocked out my front tooth playing badminton in P.E. Three years later we became friends when I decided to join the LPGA tour and she decided to be a professional tennis player (an ill-fated dream resulting in a single Virginia Slims appearance where she double-faulted three of her first four serves, but did manage to win one game while her opponent was on a water break). I never met her dad (he died when she was nine). But I did meet her mom. Betty made every friend Jean had feel like part of the family. She made me feel welcome instantly. She totally trusted Jean, loved her and allowed her to develop into her own person. She was a great mom.
So… Jean really was a reasonably good tennis player (I know its hard to believe, she’s such a clutz). She taught at John Newcombe’s Tennis Ranch in Texas, and she played in college, but then she switched into some amateur sport that paid no money at all and became a rower. She rowed at Cal while she was getting her history degree there, then tried out for some national teams, made a bunch of new friends.
We worked for Disney Studios together for a while. But then she got a job working on the 1984 Olympics, and met some guy who was the senior vice president at USC, and she ended up marrying him and moving to Worcester, Massachusetts (from sunny California??? I mean who does THAT?)
When she married Jon Strauss she instantly became a college president’s wife. She didn’t even know how to scramble eggs much less serve tea (I’m not kidding), so to those of us who “knew her when” this was pretty hysterical and an odd occupational choice for someone with her limited social skills. I mean, she was always spilling things. Never go to a restaurant with her unless you want to experience an embarrassing moment. So we all weren’t sure if Jon knew what he was getting into. I wondered what he thought when she accidentally almost burned down the president’s house in Worcester (this really happened) but that’s a whole other story.
She and Jon had two amazing sons during the time he was president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. It was obvious, even from day one, that Tiff and Jonathon were two distinct individuals, just like their parents. I personally think they’re the most incredible kids I’ve ever met.
They moved twice in their childhood, first to Maryland, when Jon was named the Vice President of Howard Hughes Medical Institute near Washington, DC, and second, to California, when he became President of Harvey Mudd College, closer to me where I could try and entice them to become golfers (an inducement which, sadly, failed…)
Just before Tiff was born, Jean’s mom died, and it was so sad. She never got to see her grandchildren. And then, between the births of Tiff and Jonathon, Jean found her birthmother, Lee. She’d been looking for her for a long time. I helped – I introduced her to the private investigator who found the record that finally led Jean to Lee. I’ll never forget when she called to tell me. It was at midnight and I remember running down the hall to answer the phone. She said, “I found her. I found my birthmother. I have her phone number.” I just sank down on the step, because I couldn’t stay on my feet. It was amazing.
And she didn’t just find Lee. She also found this wonderful family, too. Her brothers and sisters, Mary, Mike, Sue, Jim, Cathy, Bobby, and Charles, and these terrific nephews and nieces. People Magazine covered their meeting. The first person I met in her birth family was her brother Mike. I saw him walking across the parking lot at a club where I was teaching and I just knew he was her brother. I just knew it. He was a blast to get to know, and in so many ways, was like Jean. He’s easy to be with, funny and fun, and that’s her.
She wrote a book about the experience. Birthright or something. I’m listed in the acknowledgments (p. 345, paragraph 3 if you’re interested…)
Then her mom Lee, who was also an adoptee, decided to find her birthmother, Mary. It took over six years to find her. And then the three of them became friends and created some club they called the Triumvirate.
And she wrote a book about that experience, too. Beneath a Tall Tree or something. I’m listed in the acknowledgments (p. 277, paragraph 1). You can buy the book in her store if you want to read what she says about me.
She got involved in trying to change the laws regarding the sealing of records, particularly in our home state of California. She helped found an organization called the California Adoption Reform Effort which supported legislation authored by then Majority Whip of the California Assembly, Fiona Ma.
The American Adoption Congress named her the 2009 recipient of the Emma Vilardi Humanitarian Award in honor of her legislative and film work.
Then there was this whole Sound of Music thing, in between all these reunions, when Jean met ‘I Am 16 Going on 17 Liesl von Trapp’ and wrote Charmian Carr‘s memoirs, Forever Liesl, and its sequel, Letters to Liesl (I’m in the acknowledgments of course), and I got to go to the Hollywood Bowl and schmooze with all the ‘von Trapp’ kids from the film. I don’t know why she couldn’t have written more books like that. I mean, that was FUN.
But she stopped writing books altogether, and instead took a course at New York Film Academy and began to make these short films. And I gotta say, seriously, she should have been doing this all along. Her first film, The Triumvirate, this little ten minute thing on meeting Lee and Mary is brilliant. I still watch it all the time and it makes me cry even though I know how it ends. I mean, it’s really good. And she made it, this geek who used to stand next to me in line for gym. I knew she was never going to excel at badminton, but the film thing, I have to be honest, it really surprised me. It really did. I loved when a young film director came up to her at the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films (where her work first got noticed) and asked her, “Are you that mom who makes movies?” Yeah. It took her a while to find what she was meant to do. P.S. – that ‘guy’ was Tate Taylor, who went on to direct the film, “The Help”.
Not that she wasn’t good at other things. I mean, she could scull and write, but if she ever tells you she’s good at basketball, that’s just not true. I should know. I lost out on winning a car because she couldn’t make a lousy free throw. But she is personable. She has friends all over the country. She jokes that I’m her best friend from the second semester of her senior year in high school, but I don’t think that’s very funny. She does have friends, though, pretty much everywhere. Some of us think that this is just so she has a free place to stay…everywhere.
And her kids are really special, and I guess she deserves some credit for that. Tiff graduated from Yale and got an MBA and was a consultant traveling all over the place and is now getting a post bacc to go to medical school, and Jonathon graduated from Penn, worked on the Olympics for NBC, has friends all over the place, and is an entrepreneur living both in Philadelphia and New York. They’re not only smart, they’re good people, really decent people. And her husband Jon’s a really good guy, yet in another college presidency, this time at Manhattanville north of NYC, and he’s still hanging out with her, so that must mean something. Jon was never fired from any of the colleges where he’s worked because Jean spilled something on someone important (although, the truth is, she has done that, but the colleges, and Jon, were quite forgiving). I heard she even learned to cook meatloaf (of course, anyone can cook something, but the question is, can you eat it…). But still, its neat to see someone you knew ‘way back when’ develop a new passion, something special. I mean, at fifty. Getting it in just under the wire, before the big chill. I hope she has a chance to make a lot more.
So she made her first feature film. ADOPTED: For the Life of Me. She’s worked on it for four years. I know this because she didn’t visit her friends (like moi) for four years, and that was her excuse. “I’m working on this movie…” Right. But then I watched it. It follows this guy Dave who she met on an airplane (I mean, is that how all documentaries get made??). And the film lets us step into Dave’s shoes, and the shoes of other adoptees as they try to find out their own identities, and it grabs at your heart strings as you feel the hurt and the pain caused by the missing pieces of their lives, as these people try to understand the un-understandable. It doesn’t make any sense that a 92 year old woman can’t know who her own birthmother was. Through the film, you’re drawn into the agony and despair these state laws cause in the hearts of Dave and the other people we come to know. It’s been seen on PBS for the last two years. And now she’s finishing another film, “A Simple Piece of Paper”, which I guess explains why I haven’t seen her for a while…
Okay, finally, this is us. Note who’s manning the 35 mm camera. Ahem.
I think I’ve said pretty much everything I wanted to say, except I didn’t mention her other award-winning films like Breathing, and Holding Hands, and Vital Records. I have sat in theaters and listened to people cry out loud at the stories Jean tells on the screen. I know why her films have received accolades. They make people feel.
I think that about sums it up, sums her up. Maybe it explains why we’ve stayed friends forever. Life’s worth the price of admission when you feel something.
Return to the website for ADOPTED: for the life of me