Monday, July 19, 2021

Adapt and Overcome! Jeanette Westbrook


Jon Nye, Jeanette, Bobby Nakamoto, 2018

            Jeanette Westbrook stood out when we interviewed her in late 2016 for the position as administrative assistant for the EDGE Institute and for my personal assistant to help with ALS challenges. She doesn’t have a background in science, but served in the US Navy straight out of high school. I was intrigued by her military service. She used the GI Bill to finance a B.A. degree in Administration when she mustered out, while mothering her two young children.

            During the interview, we asked how she would deal with a problem situation. Her answer, “Adapt and overcome,” a slogan popular in the Navy. She also highlighted her ability to organize and carry out big events and design centerpieces for the tables to make things special. Both abilities turned out to be major plusses when she accepted the position. I had never thought designing a table centerpiece would be important. Turns out I was wrong.

            At the time of the interview, I was still walking with a walker and sitting on regular chairs. Jeanette had no idea when she interviewed that she was signing up to assist me with my disability, in addition to her work with the Institute. Fortunately for me, she took the job after it was explained and we set off on a voyage that ended up with us being supportive friends, not just boss and worker.

            The funding from UC Riverside for her job took some finagling on my part. Prior to signing a contract as a new faculty member, I was promised an assistant for my physical disability. When I arrived on campus, however, that promise evaporated. Folks didn’t seem to think I needed the help, and that if I was assigned an assistant, other people might ask for one as well. As a disabled person, you hear a lot of that talk. “To be fair, if I do this for you, I’ll need to do this for everyone.” I argued for several months before sense was talked into people who could make this request happen for me. As the years progressed, Jeanette joined me whenever issues like this arose.

            Within her first year, two big things happened: we started the EDGE Institute with a bang! A banquet was held (with centerpieces) and every week we tried something new. I taught three classes that year, and Jeanette saw that I was on time, and in place for each one. On the flip side, her personal life hit several extremely rough patches. Things happened to her that shouldn’t happen to anyone, much less a person as responsible and kind as Jeanette. Near the end of 2017, her 5-year old daughter had spent nearly two months in the hospital, with Jeanette at her side most of the time. That Christmas I served as “Santa” ordering some gifts for the kids. By then Jeanette was a single mom, and had moved in with her mother and step dad, sharing a 2-bedroom townhouse. 

Note the centerpieces


            Fortunately, we adapted and overcame. Jeanette came to campus when I was teaching and worked remotely on other days. She used sick leave, vacation time, and other pots of leave to keep her fully employed. UC’s health benefits are extraordinary and inexpensive for staff. Without the job, she’d have no insurance, having to sign up for Medical. Rory continued to improve and returned to school, relieving a burden on Jeanette. Her son Brett needed extra care with all the attention on his little sister. It wasn’t an easy time, but Jeanette persisted. Her children are the most important parts of her life. She made all the right choices in handling their care. I insisted she was not only a “good mom”, but maybe even the “Best Mom.”


Salton Sea, 2019

            Meanwhile, my physical abilities were declining. By the time I left Riverside in March 2020, Jeanette was helping me out way more than an administrative assistant should. We had a set routine for my using the restroom. Years of lobbying had resulted in push button door openers and no-touch faucets and paper towel dispensers. Before I brought in the Fogel Chair, an elevated toilet seat, Jeanette needed to assist me up from the “Throne” a couple of times when I was unable to stand on my own. She took it like a Queen, never making me feel small.

            In addition, she pushed my wheelchair all over campus—from the Geology building to the administration building on the other end of campus and to the Senate building on a faraway hill. Together we lobbied for accessible entries, parking spaces, and working elevators. I taught 11 classes on campus in person—and Jeanette saw I arrived on time, set up my computer and the projector in classrooms that were not handicap accessible.

            We became a team—I looked out for her and she looked out for me. Along the way, we had Monday Morning Mother chats—she talking about her mom, a firm, stern woman from Oaxaca Mexico and me with my mom, who was decreasing in her mental status. The stories we swapped weren’t easy ones, especially for Jeanette. We often ended these conversations reminding ourselves that our mothers did love us, but sometimes didn’t show it as we would have liked.

            I became Jeanette’s Work Mom, helping her navigate a bureaucracy that wasn’t always friendly. She managed the drudgery work--finances, ordering, travel, and purchasing. A lot of good things for UCR were accomplished. She figured out when to be strong and to take a stand. Learned to be formal and polite, and not always “friends” with colleagues. Wrote many memos and emails. Contacted caterers, Deans, facilities guys, and distinguished faculty. Jeanette was proud of her diverse work and with time, excelled at everything she did. 

Jeanette and Kaycee Morra, 2019

With son Brett, dancing, Mariposa, 2019


            We held many, many events for EDGE—puppy parties, donut receptions, field trips, big banquets, Mexican feasts, and seminars. Together, we locked the keys in Chris’s car when we were way down at the Salton Sea. In December 2019, Jeanette accompanied me to AGU’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, hauling me around the city to sessions, posters, and dinners. For our last big event on campus, we arranged flowers together in my office. It was a special time.

            At the end of my 4th year at UCR when I retired, Jeanette shifted to a more traditional job in purchasing on campus. We had a great run. I miss her tremendously, and certainly not for her business skills, but for her positive attitude and can-do spirit. Four years later, daughter Rory is doing fine, but it’s been a challenge for Jeanette the whole time. Her son Brett is a pre-teen now; Jeanette’s “ex” is helping out more, and things are stable.

AGU 2019


  During our time working together, Jeanette made friends with my son Evan and daughter Dana, who remain in Southern California. Dana can chat with Jeanette’s mom in Spanish; Jeanette has tried out camping with Evan and Dana, taking her kids along for hikes. When the pandemic threats lift for Rory and for me, we’ll get together again, I am sure. Until then, Jeanette Westbrook remains as another remarkable women in my life.

Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...