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Volunteer of the Month: Jane Sumner

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This month’s Volunteer Spotlight is on Jane Sumner, a longtime volunteer, world traveler, and veteran nurse who hails from New Zealand.

Interview by Sarah Holtz

***

How long have you been reading here?

We moved down here in 1988, and I hadn’t been here more than about two weeks when I heard a call for volunteers, so I thought, Oh, I’ll see if I’m appropriate. So I came in and did the audition, and they decided I could read reasonably fluently, and my voice was reasonably euphonious. So I’ve been doing it ever since.

What were your first impressions of the radio station?

Oh, I really enjoyed it. It’s partly initially because people were so nice. The permanent staff are always friendly, they’re always welcoming. And they seem to be very appreciative, and that meant a great deal. But the other thing is that over time, I seem to have read everything. And of course, that’s very interesting, I’ve enjoyed that.

What are some of your favorite things to read on air?

I love doing the Wall Street Journal – we don’t get that newspaper. They tend to have very thoughtful articles, so I enjoy that. I enjoy books, and I’ve read bits and pieces of a number of books over the years. I’ve done romance novels, I’ve done classics, I’ve done Naughty at Night, so I’m pretty eclectic. I’ve got two I won’t do, and one is read the advertisements, which I hate. How do you get excited for an ad on the air? And also the TV listings.

Where are you from in New Zealand?

Wellington, which is at the bottom of the North Island, and it’s the capitol. I went to school there. I did my nursing training there a long, long time ago, where my husband later came, and the rest is history.

So when did you both leave Wellington then?

We moved to London in 1968. When I met him I knew he was going to go to London to do his neurology training. We were married two years before we moved to London, and haven’t been back to live since 1968.

So from London was it straight to New Orleans?

No, he was recruited to San Francisco. It was just before we moved east that I got my Registered Nurse License to practice, so when we went to Philadelphia, I began working as a visiting nurse and then as a hospice visiting nurse. And he was recruited to the Chair of Neurology at LSU down here. So I came, and after a few hesitations, I joined the faculty of the School of Nursing at LSU. I’ve been there since 1993. I’m a professor emerita.

What courses did you teach during your tenure?

Well, I taught more or less everything except for ICU. Nobody in their right mind would do that [laughs]. I started with teaching Foundations of Nursing, and I did that for eight years. It’s a very demanding course, because obviously the students don’t know anything about nursing really. But my specialty is public or community health nursing. So when I started teaching graduate students, that was the specialty I taught. I’ve taught nursing education. I developed a theory of caring and nursing in my doctoral work. I’ve been teaching in a theory of philosophy course, a doctoral ethics, course, you name it I seem to have done it.

Moving around so much, do you have any one place that sticks in your mind or to where you’d like to go back?

I’m going to preface this by saying that it’s very important that wherever you are, you don’t look back but you make the new place home. We’ve lived in San Francisco, which I loved. We’ve lived in Philadelphia, which I’ve loved. We’ve lived in Paris, which I’ve loved, along with the three and a half years in London, and now here. Each place is home, and we love going back to all of those places.

I also hear you travel a lot, so that must satisfy some wanderlust as well.

That’s true. My husband and I are both academics, and the thing about academia is if you’re good, you get to present your work all over the world. So over time, we’d build in a week or so wherever the conference was – Italy, Germany, wherever it was. But that’s not the only international travel we’ve done. Recently, we went to India. We actually did five international trips last year, including Iran.

Oh my, what was Iran like?

Extraordinary. It’s a fascinating country. We did a tour for nearly three weeks and visited a number of great places. Because of its history, Persia, it’s remarkable how much of that history still stands. We were fascinated. I know the country gets a lot of bad press in this country, but it’s far more than the bad press. The Iranians themselves are very friendly, couldn’t have been nicer. The children all wanted to sort of try and communicate. They couldn’t say much more than ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ but you know, the parents would encourage them. The Iranians, it turns out, love picnics, so if we were in a place where we were having a picnic, which happened several times, inevitably the children would come over. They would seek us out. That was a remarkable trip.

The other trip of considerable note was we went home to New Zealand with all ten of our family [members] for our 50th anniversary, and I found a list of wedding guests that my mother had made, so we invited everyone on the list who wasn’t dead! [laughs] We had a jolly good party as you might imagine.

Did you have any new experiences back in New Zealand that you hadn’t had before?

In fact, the children had never really been to Wellington. We had taken them on a number of outings, but that’s the one place they hadn’t been. So we decided that we’d go and spend time, and there were two memorable things. The National Museum in New Zealand is called Te Papa, and my husband’s ancestors have a own section in Te Papa. So he took the family, and of course for the grandchildren. This is their family to see, and so that was very special for them. I took the girls to my old school. To be greeted by the headmistress and see all of those things it was really very special. My daughter-in-law in Vermont would very much like for her daughter to spend some time at the School – she’d be in my hall. So it gets handed down from generation to generation.

In the spirit of looking forward, do you have any other places that are on your travel bucket list?

Oh yes, of course! [laughs[ At the end of March, we’re actually joining very dear old friends to go to Costa Rica and Panama. And then in July we fly to London, and we’ll pick up a ship to sail the Baltic and go to the old USSR countries. We’ve been to Scandinavia but not the other countries, so that’s very exciting. I’ve got a few thoughts about what I’d like to do before the year is up, and we’ve got a number of travel brochures sitting at home to plan for next year. But we haven’t really seriously discussed that yet! [laughs]

Our feeling actually is that now we’re more or less retired, but as long as we’re fairly physically active and money sort of holds up a bit, we may as well go and see all the places we haven’t been to. The one thing about being a New Zealander is that it’s a small country at the bottom of the world, a long way away from anywhere. So if you want to do anything different, you get on a plane, and you have to go. So that habit of being a peripatetic soul was sort of inculcated from an early age. My father, I don’t know why, was very interested in flying. He wasn’t a pilot but he was an engineer. Anyway, I remember my first flight when I was about six years old. It was pretty bumpy in those days – of course, it wasn’t a jet engine flying way up high. And with New Zealand being mountainous and surrounded by water, you tended to have big bumps. The only time I’ve actually flown sideways was across the Cook Strait between the North and the South Islands. In a storm.

Oh, my. What was that like?

Horrific [laughs]. Actually, it wasn’t completely because the door to the flypit was open and we could see the pilot and co-pilot, and they were just flying away and laughing – flying the plane sideways. And I thought, well until they get in a tizzy, I’m not going to get in a tizzy. So we got to our destination effortlessly. Well, bumpy, but we landed safely.

That’s actually a really good segue to my next question. Obviously, you’re a very adventurous person. Do you have any phobias?

I never really thought about that. I suppose I don’t really have any phobias. Probably if you asked my family they might say, Oh, Mom!

People sometimes wonder about flying. Probably partly because I started so young, but also when I was very busy at LSU an airplane was the one place where nobody could get at me. And so I would get on board and I wouldn’t talk, even if it was my husband sitting next to me. I usually have worked, whether it’s editing student papers or when I was doing my doctoral work. So I like flying [laughs]. I really do like flying, because nobody can get to me. Give me a nice big fat juicy book and I’m as happy as a sandboy.

It seems like you don’t let fear run your life.

You know, that’s crippling, and having had two car accidents, one of which led to a surgery…and I actually am frightened of falling flat on my face. That’s happened, chipping my teeth. That’s my only fear. A fear of tripping and falling. You know, you can either be miserable, at home, and an invalid, and I decided I wasn’t going to do that. I decided, like Lazarus, to roll up my pallet, stand up, and get on with life. And that’s my philosophy.

Partly, probably it’s being a nurse. Nurses have to be resilient. It’s a very demanding profession. Would I do it again? I would. I graduated in 1964, so you know, I’ve been around the block a few times. It’s about learning from your patients. In some ways I think it’s very humbling. When you see what some people have gone through, with whatever it is that they’ve got, and yet, they don’t grumble, and like Lazarus, they move on with their lives. And you have to admire that.

In your opinion, what makes for a good story?

A good plot line and well-developed characters. Whether it’s a movie or a book, that’s what I look for. Actually, in terms of a book, does the plot grow well? Is the vocabulary good? When I read, I kind of read at two levels. One, is this grammatically correct? And whether it’s a good story.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Oh, lordy, lordy, lordy! Something my father used to say, “My word is my honor.” That if you shake hands on a deal, that’s it. You have to be completely honest. I value my own integrity, and nurses who know me know that. They don’t impugn my integrity, thank you very much. I think that’s something I’ve always lived with. My students knew that too. They knew I was tough, but I was also very fair. And where I could help them I would, and they could trust me.

Thanks for sharing that with me, and thank you so much for talking with me today. Congratulations on being Volunteer of the Month.

My pleasure!

And thanks for your service to the station.

Well, it’s been fun. Even the ‘BBC of the South!’ [laughs]

***

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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