It is with terrible sadness that I am speaking now. Earlier today marked the passing of a wonderful friend, Jean Leinhauser.
It will not be her status as legendary crafting-crochet-publishing-icon-empress that I’ll be thinking about today. Neither will I dwell on the awesome empty place she leaves in the crochet firmament. Nor should I speak with regret on behalf of the Crochet Guild of America that Jean will not be at the CGOA Chain Link Conference next month to be inducted into the Crochet Hall of Fame. Why did we wait so long to extend her that honor? Hey, never mind that last bit. I said no regrets, didn’t I?
Rather, I will be bravely grinning broadly. Perverse, you might judge me. But if you knew Jean you’d totally understand.
I met Empress Jean in 2004, at my first CGOA Chain Link conference, held that summer in Manchester, New Hampshire. Jean and her publishing business partner Rita Weiss (the Other Legend!) were scouting crochet design talent for their latest publishing venture, Crochet Partners. My crochet career had just begun the year before with not much to show. This would be my first time meeting editors and publishers and hawking my wares. I had arranged an appointment with Jean and Rita and brought along a sack full of my crochet pieces, hopeful of finding a slot in one of their future books. Yes, I was pretty cocky.
I was mightily afraid of both of these women, as their reputations were so huge. I arrived at the appointed time and waited in the conference hotel lobby for a good while, expecting to be met and shepherded into a meeting room or something. Anxious and horrified that maybe I had messed up the schedule and missed my slot, I started pacing around and around.
It was Jean I spotted first, seated in one of the high-backed upholstered chairs in the lounge area adjacent to the lobby, backlit by the hotel’s entrance windows, holding court. Yes, it was as though the entire room was at her feet, paying court. I think I scurried over, introduced myself as the two o’clock appointment and sat down. I also think I burbled a lot.
Jean was actually immediately warm and welcoming, but that’s not how it seemed to me in the moment in my petrified state. She had a way of peering at you over the tops of her glasses with a stern, piercing stare. Even though her face was smiling and kind, her eyes were always keen and observant, ever watching you, know what I’m saying?
Of the two, Rita presented the bigger personality, the glibber tongue, the louder voice. Jean appeared to be the more reserved, but in retrospect that’s only because everybody seems reserved next to Rita. I answered a few questions from the ladies, then pulled my stuff out of the bag for them to examine. Eventually I reached the bottom of the bag, where I had these Hat Heads.
Without hesitation, Jean snatched up the lot and pulled them onto her own head. At the time I thought that the whole world had busted out laughing at the absurdity. Maybe it was only me and Jean laughing out loud. From that point on, I knew I had found a kindred crochet spirit.
Clockwise from me at 9 o’clock, that’s Tammy Hildebrand (before her hair was orange), Jean Leinhauser, Vashti Braha (before contacts), Rita Weiss with her head turned away, and Marty Miller (most recent past President of the CGOA Board of Directors). That was some power lunch! As you can see, I am not actually having lunch with them. I sort of wandered over with my coffee and was allowed to sit down. I can’t for the life of me recall who took this shot.
From 2008 through 2010 I called Jean my “Center Square” of the Crochet Design Competition. Her steady guidance, discerning eye and impeccable taste made her the perfect anchor on the judging panel for three years. Funny, she must have known she wouldn’t be available to fill the center square for the 2011 Competition this September because she asked me to find another judge. Lord I will miss her.
But I am smiling right now about one of the last moments I shared with her. At the close of the 2010 Chain Link event, the last thing she said to me, peering down at my mismatched high-top Chucks and chuckling, was “You are so adorable!”.