Jean Jennings: “You Can Do Anything”

WCC Foundation Women's Council honors three local leaders

Speaking to a packed room at Washtenaw Community College on Tuesday, Letitia Byrd recalled how even her husband eventually saw women as equals, though he grew up in an era when women were expected to stay at home. “Remember that, ladies?” she quipped.

Letitia Byrd, Molly Dobson

Letitia Byrd, left, and Molly Dobson at Tuesday's Washtenaw Community College Foundation Women's Council lunch. Byrd was one of three honorees at the event. Dobson is a previous honoree. (Photos by the writer.)

Murmurs in the room showed that many of them did. About 300 people – mostly women – attended Tuesday’s luncheon of the WCC Foundation Women’s Council, where Byrd, Bettye McDonald and Marianna Staples were honored for their contributions as community leaders. The annual lunch raised about $25,000 for student scholarships and WCC’s Student Resource and Women’s Center.

Defying expectations and breaking stereotypes was a theme throughout the event, highlighted in a speech by Jean Jennings that took the audience through a romp of her unconventional path to becoming the president and editor-in-chief of Automobile Magazine, based in Ann Arbor. The saga included tales of unshaved legs, drill bits, cab driving, crash testing cars and starting a publication “with Rupert Murdoch’s money.” Jennings began by noting that the lunch would be a great place to pick up chicks.

Honoring Women Leaders: Byrd, McDonald, Staples

Before getting to Jennings’ talk, the crowd heard from all three honorees and Anne Duffy, who received this year’s Women’s Council scholarship. Duffy described her 15-year struggle with Lyme disease, saying she was on her deathbed when the disease was finally diagnosed. It took her five years to gain back her strength and start focusing on her career – she’s now pursuing an associate’s degree in journalism, with about a year left until graduation.

Letitia Byrd was the first honoree to be recognized. Peg Talburtt – the event’s emcee and executive director of the James A. & Faith Knight Foundation – noted that Byrd “has dominated the Ann Arbor community for many, many years.” The comment drew laughs because Byrd, a former Ann Arbor schools educator, is known for her ability to recruit people to support local nonprofits. Talburtt also highlighted Byrd’s work with fellow educator Joetta Mial in addressing the achievement gap for African American students in Ann Arbor schools. Their initial data collection set in place efforts that are still underway at the school district, Talburtt said.

In her comments, Byrd began by noting her sadness at the recent death of civil rights leader Dorothy Height, who had hired Byrd decades ago to work at the Delta Sigma Theta headquarters in Washington D.C. – that’s where she met her husband, David R. Byrd.

They later moved to Ann Arbor, and Byrd described the difficulties in getting housing and jobs at that time because of racial discrimination. Her husband was recruited in the mid-1960s to the newly founded Washtenaw Community College, she recalled, where he was asked to head the construction technology program. WCC hadn’t yet been built, she said, and the biggest attraction was the apple orchard located right where they were seated for the luncheon – at WCC’s Morris Lawrence Building. Byrd said she was glad to have been involved in the Women’s Council since its inception, and was pleased to continue supporting its goals.

Bettye McDonald, Molly Dobson, Gloria Thomas

Bettye McDonald, left, talks with Molly Dobson and Gloria Thomas at the May 11 WCC Foundation Women's Council lunch.

Talburtt introduced the next honoree, Betty McDonald, a retired Ann Arbor Public Schools administrator whose volunteer work has included leadership in the Ann Arbor Community Center, the Packard Clinic, Ann Arbor YMCA, Washtenaw Red Cross and many other nonprofits.

Talburtt described McDonald as “a force – just ask her sons and husband!” Her sons are Kevin McDonald of the Ann Arbor city attorney’s office, and Frederick McDonald II, chair of the WCC Foundation board. Bettye McDonald joked that her son’s influence on the board was the reason why she received this recognition. She described Letitia Byrd as her mentor, and said she hoped to continue helping young people get involved in the community through their work with local organizations and boards.

The third honoree, Marianna Staples, told the audience she felt humbled by the work of Byrd and McDonald, adding “I’ve got a couple of years left so maybe I can do some more things too.” She told the story of her father, a German immigrant who arrived in America with no money and no ability to speak English, but whose hard work and determination made him a successful businessman. Her parents never questioned that their children would go to college, so Staples and her brother never questioned it either, she said: “That’s what happens with expectations.”

Marianna Staples

Marianna Staples receives congratulations at the May 11 WCC Foundation Women's Council lunch.

Staples went on to receive a Ph.D. in French, and pursued her love of France by opening La Crêperie de la Chaumière, a former Ann Arbor restaurant, as well as teaching at Adrian College, where she continues to teach part-time.

She credits her husband, Ken Staples, with awakening in her a spark to contribute to the community. Together, they started an annual fundraiser for the Salvation Army, called The Festive Affair. Over the last 18 years the event has raised more than $2 million to support the Salvation Army and its Staples Family Center, a homeless shelter. She concluded her remarks by making a pitch for people to attend this year’s fundraiser, on Oct. 29 at Weber’s Inn. Helping the homeless find a place to makes it possible to find jobs and improve their lives in other ways. “I do believe that people can change their lives for the better,” she said.

A Serious Case of “Macho Woman Syndrome”

Last year’s guest speaker, Eastern Michigan University president Susan Martin, told rambunctious tales from her life that included slaughtering chickens and kicking down bathroom doors. It’s fair to say that this year, Jean Jennings kicked it up a notch from there.

Jean Jennings

Jean Jennings, president and editor-in-chief of Automobile Magazine: "If being a woman works to your advantage, don't be stupid – take it."

Jennings grew up with five brothers in New Baltimore, Michigan. Her father noticed she was a girl, Jennings joked, and advised her to be a waitress so she’d never starve: “He had high hopes for me.”

As a kid she didn’t tinker with cars like guys do, but she did view them as a way to something bigger, “which was to get the hell out of New Baltimore, Michigan!” She said she dated anyone who let her drive their car, and powered through high school to graduate when she was 15.

She went to the University of Michigan, but said life was crazy in 1971 and she was way too busy with anti-war protests to pay attention to studies. After three non-productive semesters, she quit school and started driving a cab. “My parents were horrified,” she recalled. “I was horrified.”

Wearing bib overhauls or a hippie skirt, smoking cigars, not bothering to shave her legs – “I was so cool!” – Jennings drove the occasional celebrity but mostly took in fares who were drug addicts or drunks. She was once robbed at gunpoint, and another time lugged a bleeding man up to his room where she cleaned out his wound with rubbing alcohol  – he screamed.

But after five years – which included overhauling the taxicab system in Ann Arbor, because that’s what women do, she said – it was time to move on, and Jennings took a job as a test driver at the Chrysler Proving Grounds near Chelsea. “Chrysler hired me because the government made them,” she said, as the crowd broke out in applause. “That’s pretty inspirational.”

The jobs for women weren’t challenging, and there was no opportunity for advancement, so Jennings started angling for a transfer. She lied, telling managers that she could weld so they’d hire her as a mechanic in the firm’s impact lab. It worked – “welding is just like sewing,” she says – and soon she was working with the guys, where “crash days were happy days.” She then told a story worthy of a Saturday Night Live sketch involving her long hair, a drill motor and bonding with male co-workers – The Chronicle can’t begin to do it justice, so we’ll leave it to your imagination.

While at Chrysler, Jennings also wrote newsletters for the UAW, which got the attention of the editor at Car and Driver magazine. [That editor was David E. Davis.] She wore jeans under her dress to the interview, which amused him, she recalled – and he hired her as a writer.

The organization had “severe testosterone poisoning,” Jennings said, and the first two years were difficult. She volunteered for every extreme assignment, from racing in the Baja 1000 to driving in a demolition derby, which she won. Then in 1985, she and Davis left Car and Driver to launch a competing publication, Automobile Magazine, started “with Rupert Murdoch’s money,” she said. It now has about four million readers.

Saying she has a serious case of macho woman syndrome, Jennings said that if you’re only half as good as the average guy, most men will think you’re a genius – “and it doesn’t take much after that to take over.”

She ended her talk with a few words of advice:

  • If you’re having a shitty time, she told the audience, nobody cares, and you’re still having a shitty time – so you might as well have some fun.
  • You can’t accept your rewards or punishments from other people – those need to come from you.
  • If you’re hiring someone, make sure to hire someone better than you. They’ll make you look good.
  • You can do anything, if you learn how to use the tools.
  • If being a woman gets in your way, try to ignore it.

Finally, she said, “if being a woman works to your advantage, don’t be stupid – take it.”