Mrs. Morristown Joan Weesner reflects on an interesting life
Joan Weesner takes a moment away from greeting longtime friends and admirers to share a smile during the Jan. 24 annual meeting of the Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce.
Surprisingly, it is not difficult to rile one of the community’s most generous, kind and tenacious supporters.
Just try to tell Joan Faulkner Weesner her city is boring.
“It makes me mad when people say there is nothing to do in Morristown. I say, ‘What do you mean, there’s nothing to do? I always have something to do.’ I really don’t understand them,” Weesner said.
The words were precisely enunciated with the remaining accent of a girl born in a Pennsylvania college town in 1929. She was raised by a first grade teacher and a nationally-known tennis pro – he mentored the likes of Arthur Ashe. As a seventh-grader, she became a season ticket holder for the Philadelphia Orchestra and as a high schooler, she met Frank Sinatra on an elevator.
On a recent Wednesday, a 500-piece puzzle awaited her on a card table in the family room of the house, while visitors and flower delivery vans made their entrances and exits. Joan outpaced daughter Becky Jo as they worked in the library to assemble a list of her lifelong accomplishments (see box).
After straightening the library table and adjusting the placement of a lamp, Joan sat down to share her upcoming calendar.
On Thursday, she planned to attend the executive board meeting of ALPS Adult Day Services — “It’s important to keep up with responsibilities,” she said.
Joan was unaware at the time that she would be named a LifeTime Member of the board during the meeting, which meant more flowers and a rowdy roast by attorney and theatre performer Kelley Hinsley; the ceremony was witnessed by her three daughters and their families.
The relationship with the nonprofit agency can be traced back decades to those late afternoons when Joan would walk the girls from home to Petie’s Pool, the site of which is now the ALPS location.
“It’s hopping,” Joan said. “ALPS is on a good path. We’ve been talking about expansion. We know we have to. We will need to start a campaign soon, because it is moving fast. Before, I always worked with the young children and now … “
On Friday (Jan. 24), she was to attend the Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce annual meeting and banquet, after a hair-styling appointment and choosing a favorite ensemble.
Saturday was to be “filing party” day, to address the volumes of Faulkner and Weesner family records and collections of publications (including National Geographic’s dating back to 1917) in the home where four Weesner generations have thrived.
At some point during it all, Becky was to show her mother how to use an iPad, just in case Joan’s voice weakens to the point that verbal communication will be too difficult.
“She doesn’t do too much with computers,” Becky said.
Cancer has been left off the appointment list, as has any mention of a prognosis.
There are simply too many other things to discuss.
“I’m still having fun,” Joan said. “There’s something new every day.”
She referred to the hospice care that had just begun as a regular group of people who would visit her. There is a bandage on the right side of her neck, covering the tumor that aggravates her a bit, but visitors are drawn instead to her bright eyes and warm smile.
The busyness, the ever-moving, ever-learning have been a part of Joan’s life as far back as she can remember.
She played four sports every year in junior high and high school: lacrosse, basketball, field hockey and tennis. The hockey and lacrosse sticks are still stored in the basement. She played on the Tusculum men’s tennis team in college
Tennis opponents sometimes refused to play Joan and her female partner in doubles. The protests resulted in the girls moving down a level of competition and easily winning.
“They’d shoot themselves in the foot,” Joan said. “They didn’t know how good we were.”
Memories scattered across more than eight decades of constant activity could fill a number of bucket lists.
Joan grew up 12 miles from Philadelphia, thus the season tickets to the orchestra. She was on her school’s stage by fifth grade.
“I wasn’t necessarily shy, but I wasn’t aggressive either,” she said. “I loved to go and see plays. At one time, I got tickets so I could work to help seat the audience, so I could go see other plays that I wasn’t in. I got to enjoy them that way.”
Joan’s father was a 40-year tennis coach at Swarthmore College, as well as the pro at Buck Hill Falls Resort in the Poconos. The resort was located 100 miles from both New York City and Philadelphia, so theatre productions with top performers were common.
Sinatra performed often in Philadelphia, and a new concert offering called festival seating was introduced while Joan was in high school. She and friends joined people standing in line outside of the theater and got tickets for seats up front near the stage.
She nearly lost her composure just remembering the elevator ride.
“Oh how wonderful,” she said. “Oh. I got on first and then there he was.”
As a young woman, Joan’s wardrobe included ball gowns like the one she wore to a certain inaugural celebration during a school trip to D.C., where another elevator ride included President Richard Nixon.
“We later found out he is a fifth or sixth cousin,” Joan said.
Gowns were needed during an ocean cruise to Europe on the Queen Mary in the 1950s with a college friend. On the return trip, the girls found themselves sailing with a number of young doctors who had been training in London. A storm ensued — “dishes were flying off the platters,” Joan said — and the girls encountered bouts of sea sickness. The doctors came up with a plan to give the girls tea and walk them around and around the ships decks to ease their symptoms.
“I can’t believe it worked,” Joan said. “They took advantage of us being the only two college-age girls on board.”
It became a family joke that Joan literally walked back from Europe.
Joan met Murrell during her first year at Tusculum; their mutual admiration was instant and lasting. The couple shared a drive to achieve, which proved to be a boon for Morristown after Joan graduated and they married and relocated.
Murrell was always interested in everything high school, while she focused on early learning. One of her favorite accomplishments was the co-founding of the community daycare now known as the Morristown-Hamblen Day Care.
When asked if she ever took a break, Joan said, “Until this, I didn’t nap, ever.”
The couple were annual season ticket holders to the Morristown Theatre Guild, but the arrival of Encore Theatrical Company marked Joan’s local stage debut. She performed in productions including the musicals “The Music Man” and “Sound of Music.”
“I got started and just loved it. It is so stimulating,” Joan said. “I loved getting to know college kids and there were several of them at WSCC that were there more than a year or two. I love following them. They are good kids. She described her role as a nun as “fabulous.”
Encore Founding Artistic Director Micah-Shane Brewer was the draw to the stage for Joan. She noticed his talent early on, while he was a freshman performer in the “The Wizard of Oz” staged at Cherokee High School.
“He was the kind of actor, still is, that the minute he stepped on stage, no one else was there. You didn’t see anyone else; you didn’t pay attention to anyone else; you just watched him. He was so good as a high school kid — wonderful — even more so now. I don’t know how he could improve, but he does.”
Joan’s interest in the lives of youth extends to a broad age group in her community. When she approaches people, it is with sincere interest.
“I’ve always found people intriguing. I like people,” she said. “I like to find out about what they do and what they think. I’m interested in all the ways people are involved. I still love the things little children do and to go visit them. There are so many things to plan for in the spring; the Heart Gala is coming. Then there is the planning for the Celebration of Tables. I have made a lot of friends, in a lot of different ways, from a lot of places.
She doesn’t think too much about the past every day; it’s the present and the future. There is a 2-year-old great-granddaughter in the mix and two more on the way, Feb. 14 and the second in April).
“All the grandchildren are fun and interesting, they’re always into something,” she said.
The mention of any regrets brings an emphatic “no” from Joan.
“It’s been a rich, full life,” she said.
She then had a memory rush back from Philadelphia, from a time when her grandmother noticed Joan’s early love for music.
“Speaking of the ‘Sound of Music,’ I saw the Von Trapp family,” she said. “One of my grandmother’s clubs invited them to perform. I didn’t know they were special at the time. They had just come to the United States. My grandmother wanted me to be there, even if it was a school day. It just impressed me so to see them and hear them. They were wonderful.”
Joan learned a lifelong lesson that day. Her grandmother walked her right up to the family after the concert to congratulate them.
“Always go up and speak to somebody and tell them they’ve done a good job and that you’ve enjoyed their performance. Don’t be afraid. Whether it’s a kindergartner, or a minister, or a football player, everybody likes to be appreciated,” Joan said.
So noted, Mrs. Morristown.
-By Glenna Howington, Tribune Staff Writer