A First (Class) Lady
Jeanine Larson Dobbins has been married to Ken for 43 years. She also has an outstanding career in education during those years. At Southeast, Jeanine worked tirelessly to make an impact on the early literacy education of over 275,000 children throughout Missouri.
If you have ever had a conversation with Jeanine Larson Dobbins, you have experienced her warm and welcoming personality. It may not be unusual to expect a university’s first lady to be friendly; however, those who have gotten to know Jeanine say it’s not just a role she plays.
“She’s very approachable,” says Sarah Long, a former member of the Board of Regents and an assistant superintendent who worked with Jeanine as she founded the Statewide Early Literacy Intervention Program. “She’s a warm, caring person. She makes that individual connection with people whether it is the Speaker of the House or a struggling first grader.”
The connections with legislators didn’t come quite as easy for her says longtime friend and former state budget director Brian Long.
“I would say she wasn’t a natural lobbyist,” Long remembers of Mrs. Dobbins’ first trips to the Missouri Capitol to secure funding for the literacy program. “But, she pretty quickly got beyond her uneasiness with knocking on doors. She was absolutely relentless.”
Brian Long says her tenacity comes from what he says can only be described as total passion for literacy.
“She was there to do business,” he says. “She was a woman on a mission. She was all about Reading Recovery. She doesn’t want to see any child left behind. She doesn’t want to see any child for whom we haven’t exerted maximum effort.”
Southeast has been involved with Reading Recovery since 1991. Reading Recovery is a short-term tutoring intervention intended to serve the lowest-achieving first grade students. In 1997, Mrs. Dobbins received bipartisan state support to take the program across Missouri as part of the Missouri Statewide Early Literacy Intervention Program. Brian Long says as budget director, he was sold on the program based on Jeanine’s passion and the materials she had proving its success. The result has been helping more than 275,000 children across the state of Missouri learn to read.
“Her impact on education is vast. She secured funding for thousands of teachers to be trained and hundreds of thousands of kids have had the opportunity to become readers because of the Reading Recovery program,” says Sheila Ward, a Reading Recovery coordinator.
Sarah Long says Jeanine valued each and every student having the resources needed to be successful, and she was just as focused on helping the teachers. She understood every teacher trained represented multiple students who would have a better life because of literacy.
“When we were struggling as a beginning location in Poplar Bluff, we were having a hard time finding money for books,” she says. “Jeanine went to her church to find a grant, so that the additional expense wasn’t a problem.” It was that do-whatever-it-takes quality that made former chair of Southeast’s Department of Elementary, Early and Special Education Eleanor Duff realize what an asset Jeanine was.
“With her faculty colleagues, she was a team player,” says Duff. “Jeanine’s door was always open. Her kind and gentle spirit contributed so much to making our departmental environment a most delightful place. Mrs. Dobbins, like the president, was a visionary.”
“She allowed us to become the premiere place for literacy education,” says Assistant Professor Cynthia Gordinier.
“She traveled all over the state promoting Reading Recovery,” says Debbie Fulton, former executive associate to the president and secretary to the Board of Regents. “Then she would tirelessly serve by the President’s side hosting functions. And, she was a great ambassador.”
Retiring President of Jacksonville State University Bill Meehan cautions not to underestimate the time and talent it takes as a university’s first lady.
“We as presidents are just not able to do all we do without our partners,” he says. “Jeanine does the same. She was at a recent event and got up and gave an eloquent speech. She is such a warm and genuine person. She will be missed just as Dr. Dobbins will.”
Fulton says being first lady was a tremendous responsibility that demanded a huge amount of time, yet Jeanine was able to juggle those responsibilities with her professional endeavors.
“I respect her. I respect her professional accomplishments in her own right,” she says. “She is just a generous human being. The bottom line is you work with people all these years, and it was hard to retire. People saw the headlines, but I saw all the hard work and dedication that went into every detail.”
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