Jean McMillen Interview:
Jean: Thank you
Interviewer: I know I already introduced you but if you could please state your name, your birthday, and how you came to the Salisbury area.
Jean: My name is Jean Porter McMillen. My birthday is July 4, 1945. I was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. I came to Salisbury in 1967 to become a teacher at Salisbury Central School
Interviewer: Oh wonderful! Where did you go to college and what inspired you to get into education?
Jean: I always wanted to be a teacher. I went to Keuka College in the central part of New York State, because it was a private, liberal arts college that specialized in Elementary Education. I graduated in 1967. I received my Master’s Degree from the University of Connecticut in 1971. I earned continuing education credits at Oxford University, Christ Church, Oxford, England in 1987 and in 1988.
Interviewer: Wow. So were your parents in education? What inspired you to be a teacher?
Jean: Some of my mother’s family were teachers but neither of my parents were teachers.
Interviewer: So you were just born to be one?
Jean: Oh, boy, I hope so.
Interviewer: What year did you begin teaching at Salisbury? And what grade levels did you do?
Jean: I started at Salisbury in 1967. I taught 12 years, fourth grade. I taught 12 years, sixth grade science. I retired in 1991.
Interviewer: Did you have a preference for what grade you taught?
Jean: No, I enjoyed both of them. Actually, I enjoyed sixth grade because they were a little bit more capable of independent thinking.
Interviewer: Absolutely. Do you have a memory or somebody that comes up in your mind that served as a mentor to you during your time teaching at Salisbury Central?
Jean: Not a specific person, because many of my colleagues were gifted and talented. I hope that I got a little bit from each of them.
Interviewer: You had mentioned at the beginning that you had taken a sabbatical to go to the UK. Tell me about that. Tell me about your experience with that. How did you end up getting the time off from work and what did you do during your time?
Jean: I had taught at Salisbury Central about 20 years. I felt that rather than burnout, I needed to change, but I didn’t want to leave education. So I discussed with my husband the possibility of going someplace on a sabbatical. He had been a sailor in 1934 and loved the UK and always wanted to go back but hadn’t been able to. So I suggested that I put in for a sabbatical to study the British Education system. The Superintendent of Schools Val Bernadoni thought it was a great idea. I was told if I could write a program that the big board, that’s representatives from all six elementary schools, and the high school, approved, I could go on half salary.
Apparently, I wrote a proper program because I got the sabbatical. We started in July of 1987, at Christ Church, taking courses for continuing my certificate to teach in Connecticut. I visited 26 different schools, most of them in Gloucestershire, or Oxfordshire from November to March 1987. I saw 65 Teachers teach.
When I was not doing schools, Foster and I used the information from our different Christ Church courses to learn more history of all sorts: pre-history, Roman, Anglo Saxon, Norman, technology, anything I could think of, because I was charged with the responsibility of being a resource person for the region, which is pre K through 12th grade. We toured from September to November, I did schools from November to March, and then we toured from April to August 1988. When we came home, we had about 2000 slides.
We had three boxes of material given to us by schools. I did 26 elementary schools, and two high schools. When I walked into my first classroom in England, in Dry Sanford, I had no clue what was going on. That was an eye opener for a 20 year veteran.
I had some interesting experiences. At the Dry Sanford School, I was given the infants, aged four to seven, and told to teach them English money. I’d been in the country one month. When the half hour was over, the teacher came over to see what they had learned. The little ones said, Oh, Miss this American Miss doesn’t know her money.” Tanya was mortified! But I taught long enough that I knew if I really messed it up deliberately, they would teach me.
Here is another interesting story. I was an aide in Mrs. Duffill’s classroom in Swindon Village. The first hour and a half of the day was math. I was doing what I normally do. Mrs. Duffill came to me at the end of the period and said, “I’ve been chuckling all morning”, and I’m thinking, does my slip show my seams? What did I do? She says, “Well, do you remember what you said to Susan?” Now, these kids are all in uniform. So to me, they all look alike. I said, “Yeah, she came up to me and I looked at her paper and I said, ‘You don’t need help, you want me to see how well you’re doing.’” Mrs. Duffill said, “That’s right. I’m used to training first year teachers and they don’t pick up on that.” But as a 20 year veteran, I forgot that I was supposed to be an aide and not the teacher. I had a lot of
really great experiences, and I enjoyed it very much.
Interviewer: So from those experiences, did you take anything back to your classrooms and Salisbury and implement those there? Or was it such a drastic change that it really wasn’t an option based off, you know, state curriculum or whatnot.
Jean: It wasn’t an option because at the time that I was in England, they were not on the National Curriculum. So each school did their own thing. If they wanted to teach chocolate, they would teach it for six or eight weeks. They would do anything related to chocolate, whether it was a science, music, poetry, art, or writing letters to ask about ingredients, all that. We can’t do that here because we have curriculum requirements and tests. We have shorter periods, we only have a 45 minute period that we have with the children. So a lot of it couldn’t be implemented. But they certainly heard an awful lot about the UK.
Interviewer: So not to change subjects drastically. But I do want to talk about I hear that you built your own house here in Salisbury. Is that true? So how, how, especially with the time and you being a woman, that wasn’t an easy thing to do as a single woman, tell us how you did this.
Jean: Well, I had been renting an apartment, and I couldn’t see that I was getting any equity out of it. So I wanted to buy a house. This was 1973. I was looking and I couldn’t afford anything on a teacher’s salary, which was generous, but not that generous. So I decided that the best option for me was to buy land. I bought a piece of land, an acre and a quarter on Chatfield Drive. I had to have my father sign for a $3,000 mortgage, even though I was a vested teacher, which means I’ve been teaching for a while. I was a single woman.
Well, I owned the land. Now I’m living in new apartment for about four years when my landlady came to me and said, “My mother really wants to come and live with me. So we need your apartment.” I called my contractor whom I had had look at the land to see if I could feasibly build a house here. I said, “Guess what? We’re going to build a year earlier than I planned.” We had already determined the plans and I had been saving for a down payment for a construction mortgage. He called me back and he said, “Are you sitting down?” “No.” “Well you’d better.” When he told me how much it was going to cost to build a house, it was at that point five times my salary. “Well, Mr. Warren, I’m just a teacher, I’m going to have to pay you in cookies.” Every time I got a bill for $10,000 or $15,000, at the bottom of the bill, in his handwriting, “time for more cookies”, and he got a dozen cookies.
Now, when I wanted to get a construction mortgage, I went to several banks, but I also went to the Great Barrington Savings Bank. There was a very nice Polish lady working in the mortgage department. She asked, “You are?” “I’m Jean Porter, Chet Porter’s daughter.” “Oh, are you the Jean Porter that gave back the Rotary scholarship that you earned in 1963?” “Yes, I am.” She said, “You’ve got your mortgage.” They knew that I was going to be a good customer and I would pay back the money. Three men that came down to inspect the house as it was being built. One of them I had babysat his children, the second one, I went to school with his son, and I didn’t know the third one.
Interviewer: Right, well, two out of three.
Jean: Two out of three isn’t bad.
Interviewer: So what kind of cookies did you make this man? I’m very curious
Jean: chocolate chip. He liked molasses raisin and lemon coconut. One time he was having a meeting with Frank Perotti Sr. who was doing all the plumbing for the house. Mr. Warren had gotten his cookies and was eating his chocolate chip cookies. Frank Perotti put his hand over to get a cookie and his wrist got slapped. “No, if you want cookies, you have to make a separate contract with business. Miss Porter.”
Interviewer: There you go. I love that. So, to circle back, you gave up a scholarship?
Jean: Well, I was supposed to get the Rotary Club scholarship from Great Barrington. When I graduated from high school, Mr. Moran, President of the Great Barrington Rotary Club, had promised it to me. A week before graduation from Searles High School, the valedictorian’s father died very unexpectedly. The Rotary scholarship went to her, as it should have. Mr. Moran was so upset. He came to me and said,” Look, if we have any money left over from the horse show,(they did a big fundraising horse show in Great Barrington in July) we’ll give you that money. They did the horse show and I got $250 to go to college. College wasn’t as expensive then as it is now. When I got out of college and got my first job, I sent him a letter and a check for $250 to help somebody else. Well, they thought that was wonderful. To me, it was my responsibility to pay back the people that helped me. He made a big deal out of it which embarrassed me but down the road, I got my mortgage. Things come full circle. You never know what’s going to happen.
Interviewer: So tell me, did you meet your husband here in the Salisbury area? Who is your husband and how did you meet him?
Jean: My husband was Foster McMillen. I was Secretary of the Housatonic Color Camera Club. I got into that because a friend was interested in joining things, but didn’t want to go alone. So she suckered me into that. I’m giving a report at the Christmas dinner at Elsa’s Kitchen. Foster turns to his first wife and says, “Gee, at least there’s one good looking woman here.” Unfortunately, Thelma died of cancer shortly thereafter. I became President. One of the duties of the President was to attend the funeral services of deceased members. I went to the Memorial Service for Thelma which was held in Foster’s backyard. That was the first time I put Foster McMillen and a face together. Well, he was on the nominating committee that made me President. So I figured: okay, we used to have a club Christmas dinner out at Elsa’s kitchen, which is out in the wilds of Taconic. I don’t like driving after dark so I called him up and asked him if I could impose upon his generosity to give me a ride to the Christmas dinner. He said, “Oh, good, because there’s another lady I’m supposed to take. And I don’t want to take her!” To repay him for the ride, I tried to invite him for dinner, but he was so scheduled with other women that wanted him for dinner that I had to wait three weeks before he had an open day. Well, he was healthy, he was comfortably well off. There were a lot of ladies that were very interested in him as potential marriage material.
We had nothing except the camera club in common. I was 34 years younger than he. We were of different religions. At that point, he was teaching at Indian Mountain School. I was public school. He came from New York City, Staten Island. I came from Gt. Barrington. That’s how I met him in 1979. We married in 1982. We had 23 and one half years together.
Interviewer: Sounds like you had a wonderful 23 and a half year
Jean: Well, considering he was 70 and I was 37 it was more years than either of us expected.. When we went for marriage counseling, Jerry Pollock was my minister. He asked all of the traditional questions. Then he looked at Foster and said, “Foster is your life insurance paid up?” Smart man! Shortly after we were married, Foster was at Rotary standing in line at one of John Harneys buffets. Fran Gomez was behind Foster “Oh Foster, we morticians love people like you.” Foster turned around and announced, ”You won’t see anybody with a happier smile on his face.”
Interviewer: Oh, sounds so sweet. So I hear camera club. Tell me about the other things that you’ve done in your life. I hear you ran a water company, I’ve heard there’s a lot of volunteer positions that you’ve taken on: tell me about a few of those that have been your favorite or maybe most challenging.
Jean: Teaching was the most challenging. I loved it. I retired when I was 46. The State of Connecticut doesn’t accept that you’re retired until you’re 55. I had to go back to work in order to pay my health insurance.. Everything that I applied for, I was either overqualified or couldn’t use a computer. I wound up for 10 years selling estate and antique jewelry at Pauline’ Places in Kent which I absolutely adored. She took me under her wing. I think I read every jewelry book in her library and in the State of Connecticut. Her third generation jeweler, Howard Lockwood, taught me about findings, facets, color and all sorts of things. It was a fascinating experience. I worked for about three or four years as a volunteer at the Scoville Memorial Library from 1988 to 1992. I was hired by Sarah Wardell to work as a paid librarian from1992 to 1995.
Next I went to Pauline from 1995 to 2005 when Foster died.
For volunteer work I’ve been a docent at the Holly Williams house. I’ve been a sitter at the Tremaine gallery. I have worked with Ginny Moskowitz and later with Katherine Chilcoat, who were Town Historians.
When we moved back here in 2000, from living in my husband’s house, 384 Sharon Road, I became President of the Chatfield Hills Water Association. I ran that for nine years, which was technically challenging, but the people that I worked with were very helpful and very willing to explain things to me. But I learned quite a lot about water when I finished up with the company, which helped when I started doing the oral histories.
Interviewer: How does that connect?
I was trying to interview John Whelan, who was at that time, head of the Wastewater Pollution Management for Salisbury, the sewer company, basically. When I was interviewing him, I was asking him about PVC pipe diameter, and rate of water flow. He’s looking at me like I’ve got three heads! “Well, let me give you some background. I ran the Chatfield Water Company for nine years. I knew all of the sanitation engineers in Hartford.” He realized that I knew what I was talking about. Then the answers were for factual and appropriate for my questions.
I became town historian in 2014. I’m still town historian. I took over the Oral History Project in 2010. At that time, there were 117 oral histories done, but 65 of them were still on tape, which needed to be transcribed. I had help with the transcriptions from about a dozen people. I started interviewing in 2012. It is now 2022. We have 421 oral histories in hardcopy, and online on the Salisbury Association website,
Interviewer: That is one of my favorite things. So tell me a little bit about your experience. Interviewing people and to my knowledge, which I don’t believe a lot of people know, it’s not people of prominence. It’s not, you know, rich and famous. It’s true. What was your youngest?
Interviewer: And so tell me why. Why. What made you interview a 12 year old?
Jean: Well, when program started, it was based on interviewing people that were born at home and of a certain age group. When I took it over and started interviewing, I opened it up to anyone that did paid or volunteer work for the town because I wanted a wider spectrum of people.
Everybody has a story: it’s my job to find it. My age range is 12 to 97. That gives me a nice span of ages. The reason I did the 12 year old was I was working on the SOAR program, which had been implemented about 10 years ago. This young lady had been in 17 SOAR programs. She talked about each program that she done, who the teacher was, what she liked what she didn’t like.
If I’m doing a school, I do the Headmaster, I do some of the teachers. But there’s an element of a school that’s missing, in my opinion, because I was a teacher. You have to have a pupil.
If I’m doing the Salisbury Summer Youth Work Program, and I’ve done all of the Directors from when it started in 1972. You got to have a kid! It was important to have the young people as well as middle section, and older people. My thought with the young people, of whom I’ve done about a dozen, is if they buy into this, this is a rather select group that’s out on the web. They can preen to their friends. They’ll protect the town. If they see one of their peers vandalizing or dropping litter, “Hey, this is my town, you shouldn’t be doing that. This is my town you behave.” I think it’s good PR. I think it’s important.
Interviewer: Absolutely. I’m assuming that you have interviewed some of your students that you
Jean: Oh yes! One of funniest for me, and I have not done to this to anybody else. But I had had two of the Harney children. I wanted Paul Harney because of the Harney Tea Company. I got his cell number from his brother John Jr., I called up and I get “Paul here.” “This is your fourth grade school teacher.” Dead silence. “Miss Porter?” “Yes, Paul, I want an oral history on the Tea Company.” “Oh, absolutely I’ll even give you a pot of tea.”
I’ve done many of my former pupils, which is very enjoyable. With Paul, I had him in fourth grade when he was nine. I interviewed him when he was probably 40 years old. I had not seen since he was in my class. It was fun.
Everybody has been generous with their time and their information.
Two of the things with my program that are unusual are number one, the age range. Number two, we do a dress rehearsal. We had talked for about an hour previously, so that my victims, as I call them, are comfortable. They know what I’m going to ask if they want to prepare before the taping. They know the questions that I’m going to ask. I want to make it as comfortable and as pleasurable for them as possible. I’m always happiest when somebody says, “I enjoyed that. That was fun.”
Interviewer: Yeah. What has been the most inspirational person that you have interviewed?
Jean: The young man who happened to be black, who was brought up in the projects in Hartford, whom I had had in sixth grade. He volunteered to give me an oral history on the discrimination that he had faced at Salisbury Central, Indian Mountain, Salisbury School for Boys, and Housatonic Valley Regional High School.
Interviewer: Well, I’ll have to listen to that one. So I know when you had told me about your duties as the Town Historian, I was surprised. I know a lot of people hear Town Historian and they think one thing, but tell me what does that mean to be the Town Historian of Salisbury? What are some of your duties? And lastly, what is your most favorite part of because it’s all volunteer?
Jean: Oh, yes- I am a volunteer.
Interviewer: Is there a part that keeps you on and keeps you motivated?
Jean: Duties : You are charged with preserving history in any way possible. You are charged with answering questions that come by telephone, by word of mouth or by computer. People ask questions on any kind of history in the town. You are charged with taking care of the town cemeteries. I report to the Salisbury Association once a year. I believe people in town should know what I do so I do a report for the Annual Town Report. I also do a separate report to the Selectmen on the cemetery restoration program that I’ve been working on for seven years. I get questions from locals, United States, Europe, and Scandinavia. Some of them are very off the wall. Some of them are on target. Many of them are about genealogy. Some of them are about houses history. Many of them are miscellaneous questions. There are even businesses inquiries about economic development or environmental surveys or other things that aren’t necessarily in my purview. But I do try and find them.
One of the most recent ones was a lady wanted to find orange Benjamin’s diary for ice- out dates for Lakeville Lake We had a folder on Orange Benjamin, who was a shoemaker in town. The little white building next to the old firehouse is where he had his business. We found that his diaries are kept at the Connecticut Historical Society on Elizabeth Street in Hartford, but we had the information in our files that she wanted. That was yesterday.
Interviewer: Wow. And since the last time we spoke, that’s drastically different. Oh, yeah. So it’s just amazing to me.
Jean: The thing that I enjoy the most, believe it or not, is cemeteries because I’m working with a wonderful company in Norfolk, MCC. Martin Johnson and his crew have restored many of the hazardous stones at Lime Rock Cemetery. Town Hill is in the middle of Hotchkiss campus. The Buildings & Grounds Manager John Bryant and the sexton Andy Fenn and I meet each spring to discuss what should be done each year. They do an admirable job maintaining that cemetery. Old Mount Riga stone restoration was finished this summer. We have work going on at Dutcher” Bridge. A private angel has donated money to refurbish and repaint the fence and have the 5 tree stumps ground and the soil reseeded. Hopefully we’ll be able to do some restoration work at the Old Burying Ground. These are the cemeteries that are town owned, there are seven independent or privately owned cemeteries, I inspect those as well in May. I also keep a list of any veteran graves that do not have flags or markers. I give that list to Chris Williams so the American Legion can put flags on their graves.
Interviewer: When you say restore does that go from cleaning through stone repair?
Jean: The company I’m working with restores grave stones to historically accurate requirements, not cleaning. That is a separate issue. I have a very fine gentleman from Millerton that cleans the stones when and if he can, which is paid for by the Salisbury Association. The Salisbury Association has also provided funds to refurbish the sign at the Old Burying Ground and the Marsh graves on Belgo Road. With those 2 stones the inscriptions have been so eroded, that the Salisbury Association gave me permission to have Ghi create a replica of the epitaph on burnished metal which was attached to the stones so that people can actually read the beautiful poem that was written about George Marsh and his daughter Rebecca.
Interviewer: Well, I’ll have to go see that. So you’ve done a lot. And you know, between being a teacher, being a volunteer, working for a water company and antique store, what do you do in your free time?
Jean: What free time?
Interviewer: That was my next question, but you know, what are your hobbies? What do you like to do for yourself?
Jean: I read a lot. I do a lot of handwork. I garden. I have a lot of friends and relatives that I keep in touch with and generally try to stay out of mischief which for me is very difficult.
Interviewer: Well, it’s been lovely. Do you have anything else you’d like to add that I have missed?
Jean: Just that Salisbury has been very welcoming to me and I’m trying to give back in any way I can
Interviewer: well thank you so much for your time Jean it’s been a pleasure.
Interviewer: Okay so I did forget to ask you, I wanted to talk about a little bit more about the house because I know that you were involved with some of the building and painting and whatnot, who taught you first and foremost, those handy skills. But second of all, did anybody teach you what to look for when building or when buying a property or whatnot?
Jean: Well, I’m going back to my childhood. My father wanted a baseball team and my mother only produced me, the water boy. So I did a lot of work with my father with sheetrock, painting, laying floors, electrical work and some plumbing work because he needed to gofer. I had basic skills.
When I was looking for a house, I went to several different real estate agents. The one that was the most helpful was Al Borden. He would take me to a house and say, “Now, when you go down cellar, you look for water marks on the walls.” or “Look at the chimney to see if it’s got mortar in it that has been pointed properly” He would point out flaws for me to look for. I never did buy a house: I built mine. So I didn’t have any of these flaws.
In working with my contractor, he also would explain about the construction of a house. I took a correspondence course from the LaSalle University in Chicago for interior decorating so that I could read blueprints. When he was presenting his blueprints to me, I could read them. The fellows that worked for him were very helpful if I had a question or wanted something explained. They didn’t pat me on the head and say,” Oh, don’t worry about that.” They would explain it to me. I’m an intelligent woman. I really want to know where my money’s going, and if I’m getting value for it.
Later in life when I was widowed, and I was redoing my driveway or redoing my roof. I would have my clipboard with my questions. I had a very nice young man from Texas to give me an estimate about the roof. I’m asking him about felting weight, weaving or lapping the felt. He looked at me and he said, ”Ma’am, ladies don’t generally ask questions” “ Well, it’s my house and it’s my money. I want to know that I’m getting value for the money I’m spending.” He thought about it and he said, “Ma’am, you ask as many questions as you want to.”
Interviewer: Well. It seems like both your father and Mr. Borden gave you some good advice.