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DIANE MAKAR MURPHY By helping others, 'Prissy' spreads joy, helps herself



Published: Thu, May 10, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



It is finally a beautiful spring day as I drive up to Jean Chuey's cottage in Hubbard. Sunshine. A cool breeze through mostly barren trees.

A brick path leads to a wooden footbridge, which crosses over to a well-kept little bungalow, beige-sided, green- and purple-trimmed. Jean, "Prissy" to her friends, comes down the porch steps, smiling, a red turtleneck sweater reflecting roses in her cheeks. Nikes peek out from her black plaid pants.

Jean (a few days from turning 80) extends a hand and welcomes me in for iced green tea and Girl Scout cookies in her comfortably crowded living room.

"I've really been able to enjoy life," Jean said. "There's so much that I've done. I like to say, I didn't ride a camel across the Sahara, and that's all I haven't done." She laughed.

What she's done: Jean has spent about 50 years in volunteer work. She has served the Red Cross, YWCA, Northside Medical Center, Girl Scouts, PTA, her church and now Butler Institute of American Art. She is modest about her contributions.

"Many do much more than I do," she said. "You see the need and you fill it."

Jean volunteered for 30 years as a Red Cross water instructor. She also served as vice president on the YWCA board of directors.

Much of her volunteer work was with the Lake to River Girl Scout council, where she began as troop leader when her younger daughter was 3. She eventually became council president.

"When my husband got MS [multiple sclerosis] in the mid-'60s, I gave up all the volunteering work," Jean said. Her eldest daughter, Mary Kay, was in college studying law, middle daughter, Rita, was a senior and son, Robert, was a junior at Ursuline. Disabled by his disease, her husband, Steve, couldn't continue with his private law practice. Jean became deputy clerk in Girard Municipal Court to support the family.

"I know many people have had it worse. But thank God I was able to get a good job and keep us all together," she said.

She showed a beautiful oil painting of their home at the time, fall colors bursting yellow and red on the painted trees.

"This is supposed to be Steve," Jean said, pointing to a man burning leaves somewhere in the painted distance. "Steve loved those trees. Two weeks after he died in 1983, a tornado came through and destroyed them all."

Closure, I offered, and Jean agreed.

Back to volunteering: After she retired, volunteering again became a part of Jean's life. These days, she assists at church, sometimes greeting congregants, sometimes pouring coffee after services. Weekly, she staffs the gift shop at the Butler. She also assists friends in need.

"I don't do it for the gratitude, but what you get is far superior to what you give," she said.

At 80, her life is more about personal pleasures than service.

"In February, I went to Japan to visit Robert and his family."

Robert is a patent lawyer in Japan.

"I went alone. I always go alone. Isn't that the way to get things done? It wasn't a tourist trip; it was a grandma trip."

She has six grandchildren.

"I play a lot of bad golf and a lot of worse bridge," she said. "I love to walk, and I try to do a lot of it. It's lovely out here at night. I like to read, and I'm a little too involved playing Free Cell, which is like solitaire, on the computer.

"I grow poor flowers. I try every year, but even my dandelions leave my yard.

"I watch birds, but it's not a great consumer of my time. I don't know exactly what my pleasures are," she said. "Certainly my grandchildren. I have two in Hubbard, and I see them a lot.

"I just enjoy life. I don't think there is any great success story there though. You just have to take life for better or worse. It's crazy to think every day is one big party. You have to realize that there are many pitfalls and try to rise above them."

Ranking what has been important in her life, Jean said, "Motherhood, of course. Friends that you make. Taking a day at a time."

Having spent a morning with Jean, I'd have to add, spreading joy.




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