Opinion

Hummingbird made of steel: ‘Newsroom mom’ Jeannie Eblen blazed trails with relentless curiosity

November 23, 2021 3:33 am

Jeannie Kyger Eblen was known as a “newsroom mom” to KU students who worked at the University Daily Kansan while her husband, Tom (right), was general manager. But that was only one aspect of her energetic life. (Courtney Eblen McCain)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum and a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission.

Jeannie Kyger Eblen could never get enough books or magazines, always sought more knowledge on any subject and saw no end to her curiosity. She moved through life like a darting hummingbird — one made of steel.

Jeannie wanted to know what you had to say. And she was so well read that whatever the subject, she likely knew something about it.

Those of us who knew her will miss her terribly. She died suddenly Nov. 11. She was 77.

Jeannie was small, but not delicate; brilliant, but unpretentious; kind, but no pushover. She wore a pixie cut and rimmed glasses and had a dynamite smile. She didn’t weigh a thing but could fill a room.

But she also kept a hardhat in her trunk, always seemed to have a screwdriver or wrench handy, and during the winter, wore heavy Carhartt bib overalls and snow boots.

She explored constantly.

Tom and Jeannie Eblen read a book with their granddaughter Megan. Jeannie Eblen was a voracious reader. (Courtney Eblen McCain)

She once served as an election judge. She completed the Lawrence police academy for citizens. She even accompanied her daughter Courtney Eblen McCain, then a Texas paramedic, on one of her shifts.

“She enjoyed riding along with me,” Courtney said, adding that her mom signed the waiver and donned the required black shoes, black pants, and a white shirt.

Courtney said her endlessly curious mother also had read — cover to cover — her copy of a fire engineer magazine, once asking about the suppression measures firefighters had used to contain a fire on a call Courtney had made.

“She tended to remember everything she read,” Courtney said. “I’d say, ‘Well, mom, I was working on the medical part of that run, so I don’t know.’”

Jeannie subscribed to the Tulsa Jewish Review, not because she was Jewish — she wasn’t — but because she found faith interesting. She read a lot about the world’s religions, from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and more.

She also read Field and Stream. She just wanted the knowledge.

“She has tens of thousands of books in this house,” Courtney said, “and I suspect she’s read all of them.”

Courtney considers her mother a trailblazer. At a time when the professional horizons of women consisted largely of nursing or teaching, Jeannie majored in journalism at Oklahoma State University. She moved to Kansas City, where she worked for The Star from 1966 to 1976.

According to her obituary, she won a slew of awards, including a Dorothy Dawe Award for home furnishings writing. She also served as the Kansas City field editor for Better Homes and Gardens.

Courtney considers her mother a trailblazer. At a time when the professional horizons of women consisted largely of nursing or teaching, Jeannie majored in journalism at Oklahoma State University. She moved to Kansas City, where she worked for The Star from 1966 to 1976.

– Mark McCormick

I met her through her husband of 51 years, Tom Eblen, the beloved general manager of the University Daily Kansan at the William Allen White School of Journalism. She would sit with me at WAW functions, helping me feel welcome. She lovingly embraced Tom’s students as their “newsroom mom.”

Jill Jess, the former news director at KU, once worked with Jeannie there.

“She was a super quick study on everything,” Jess said. “She could master any computer program.”

But then a wave of budget cuts claimed Jeannie’s hometown news specialist job, Jess said. She and university relations director Todd Cohen had to tell her.

“How do you lay off your ‘mom’?” Jess asked. “We felt so awful. She ended up comforting us.”

Jeannie lovingly cared for Tom as his health declined. She was his caregiver for about six years. He died in 2017.

In recent years, she waged a private battle with lymphoma. It didn’t slow her down.

“It just became something she added to her to-do list,” Courtney said. “There was a lot of ‘stiff upper lip’ in our family. You can sit here and whine about it, or you can get up and get it done. That’s how my brother and I were raised.”

The pandemic proved more formidable.

“She couldn’t go to her museums,” Courtney said. “She couldn’t visit her grandchildren. I couldn’t be around her when she was immune-suppressed.”

But, she made do.

She read the usual number of newspapers she subscribed to every day. She chatted with her grandchildren on Zoom. She made her home her castle.

She grew up on a farm in southeast Kansas. There were no repairmen. You didn’t order pizza. You did for yourself, or it didn’t get done.

For Jeannie, there was always more to do.

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Mark McCormick
Mark McCormick

Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum and a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission.

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