Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton

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Claire Jacobus, Head of Friends of the Library Is a Friend Indeed of the Princeton Community

I wouldn't have minded growing up to be Louisa May Alcott," says Claire Jacobus, as she sits by a table piled high with books.

Although she didn't quite follow in the footsteps of that celebrated author and advocate of opportunities for young women, Mrs. Jacobus certainly did come away with a love of words and a commitment to making life better for those who are often overlooked by society at large.

Hers has truly been a committed life. Wife, mother, volunteer, friend: Mrs. Jacobus has invested all of these roles with her singular energy, optimism, capability, and vision.

And a strong work ethic and basic practicality, she would add, which she attributes to firm family influences and early years spent in the midwest.

Born in Centerville, Iowa, Claire was the only child of William and Ruby Robinson.

"My father, who was born in Princeton, Missouri, was a pharmacist, and he had a drug store," she recalls. "My mother grew up in Centerville, and her people originally immigrated to the U.S. from eastern Europe."

Princeton, Mo.

When her father had a massive heart attack at the age of 38, Claire was four, and the family moved to her grandparents' farm in Princeton, Mo., where Mr. Robinson convalesced. "In those days, the accepted treatment was total bed rest," explains Mrs. Jacobus.

This experience was very influential, she adds. "It was a true midwestern farm, small, self-sustaining, with chickens, vegetables, and flowers. My grandfather was also the postman, and he and my grandmother, Clara Robinson, would go into town once a week.

"My grandmother had an enormous influence on me," she continues. "I was a much-beloved only child, carefully brought up by a very supportive, loving family. When we were with my grandparents on the farm, I had to work. I learned to clean and pluck a chicken; I learned how to knit, tat, and embroider, and to put up pickles. My grandmother was loving, but she believed that children had a place in the household and should do their part. She, at the age of 11, had cooked for 25 farm hands, and got up at 4:30 in the morning and went to bed at 7:30 at night."

These lessons were not forgotten in later years, points out Mrs. Jacobus. "It's part of me now in the work as a volunteer. Really good volunteers are willing to do whatever is needed to make the situation work. Whether it's stuffing envelopes, going to the printer, whatever. It is deeply important never to be too important to do what needs to be done. It helps to have done every job yourself and still be willing and able to do it yourself again."

Throughout the early years of her life, she was never without a book, remembers Mrs. Jacobus. "Before I learned to read, my mother read to me all the time, and then I started reading fairy tales myself, then all the Pooh books, Mary Poppins, and also Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales, translations of Greek mythology. Also, I was taught at home by my mother until I was seven."

New Challenges

A big change occurred when Claire was eight, and the family moved to Pittsburgh, Pa., spending the war years of 1942 through '44 there.

Claire loved school, she reports, but Pittsburgh was quite a change and presented new challenges for a girl who had been taught at home. "There were a lot of tough kids, and that was actually a good experience. I also remember you could see the glow from the burning steel mills all the time."

World War II brought with it ration books, blackouts, and collecting tin cans, she adds. "We'd invite people over for blackout parties, and sit behind curtains and tell stories. I was too young to remember a lot, but two things I do remember were hearing church bells ringing all over the neighborhood on D-Day (invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944), and also when Franklin Roosevelt died. I had just assumed he would be President forever."

The Robinsons moved again in 1944, this time to Fairfield, Conn., where Claire spent the remainder of her childhood.

"It was a lovely town to grow up in, in many ways a classic American town," she says. "We lived in an old house, built in 1750. I had a very happy childhood there."

Claire enjoyed school, especially English literature, grammar, and history, and she participated in various activities, writing for the school newspaper, editing the yearbook, serving on the student council, and acting in school plays.

Several teachers influenced her, she adds. "I had a wonderful English teacher in high school, Miss Copeland, and a Latin teacher, Evangeline Garafalo, who was one tough cookie! I loved Latin and took it for four years, but she made you stand beside your desk when you translated."

Also during those years, Claire loved to go to New York to the theater, and she saw some memorable productions. "This was a big treat for me, and we saw Jessica Tandy in Streetcar Named Desire, and Lee J. Cobb in Death of a Salesman. Also, my father, who had been on a business trip to Boston, had seen a play there, which he was sure would be a big hit in New York. When it opened, he took us to see it ---South Pacific.

Double Features

Movies were fun, too, and weekends were often times for double features. "We loved Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper, and when I was a little girl, I especially loved Tyrone Power. Those were the days when there were really stars. Once in a while, my mother would let me have a movie magazine, so I could read about them."

Other influences were at work, too, she notes. "We drove down to Florida for vacations, and on the way, we went through the segregated south. It was terrible. I remember we stopped for lunch in Jackson, Miss., and when I was about eight, I asked my mother what the significance of the 'Whites Only' sign was. And I noticed that black people had to step off the sidewalk into the gutter, if a white person was walking toward them. I asked my mother, 'Why are they doing that?' It made a big impression on me."

The life of the mind was celebrated in the Robinson household, and when Claire was ready for college, she chose Bryn Mawr. "I very much wanted to go there, and I loved it. Everyone read all the time! It was a deeply intellectual life. You could learn as much as you wanted to.

"What I learned, of course, was how to ask the questions and find the answers. The 'how', not the 'why', which is deeply important, and I think is really the value of a liberal arts education."

Majoring in English literature, Claire studied hard, and encountered a number of memorable professors. "I remember English Professor Samuel Chew, Joseph Herben, who taught Chaucer, Milton Nahm in philosophy, and a splendid woman, Laurence Stapleton, who taught 17th Century literature."

Claire edited the college newspaper, but studying was her major focus, she says. "Sending me to college was a considerable financial sacrifice for my parents, and I understood that. They valued education, and I valued education, and I wanted to do my best."

In addition, she made many good friends, who remain a part of her life today. Then, in her junior year, circumstances contrived to bring her face-to-face with the love of her life. "I went on a blind date, and met David Jacobus, who was in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania," she reports, stating further: "I would have married him then and there — immediately!"

Love at first sight notwithstanding, marriage was postponed until after she graduated in 1954, and then had two years working in New York City for "The New Yorker" magazine.


"It was wonderful," she recalls. "I loved being in New York. I lived on West 10th Street in the Village with a Bryn Mawr classmate, and at "The New Yorker," I typed manuscripts of all the famous staffers, including E. B. White and James Thurber. Then, I was promoted, and worked for Katharine White, E. B. White's wife, who was the fiction editor.

"Also at the magazine, there was a real martinet, who insisted all the young women on staff learn shorthand. It was extremely character-building for us 'sleek sophisticates', as we saw ourselves, and ultimately, useful."

True love prevailed, however, and Claire and Dr. Jacobus were married in 1956. Shortly after, he entered the army, and the couple moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked in basic research at the Army Institute of Research at Walter Reed Hospital.

After his discharge two years later, Dr. Jacobus worked in the Civil Service, as head of the Division of Medicinal Chemistry at Walter Reed, developing drugs for malaria.

The Jacobuses lived in Washington until 1970, witnessing the turbulent times of that era, including assassinations, racial riots, war protests, and cultural upheaval.

In addition, they had five children. An only child herself, Mrs. Jacobus wanted a big family. "We chose to have a big family, and I was able to stay home and care for the children."

Marget, Claire, William, Laura, and John all attended the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, a school whose philosophy had a deep impact on Mrs. Jacobus.

"Quakers have had a big effect on me because they really believe in consensus, bringing everyone to the table to discuss whatever it is, so you don't start screaming past people." she observes. "Silence is something they learn to listen to, rather than just sit through. I have found too that often, the quieter the voice, the more effective it will be. Really listening to others is so important."

Interesting Life

During the years in Washington, Mrs. Jacobus, though a full-time mom, did dip her toe into the journalistic waters, and free-lanced as a book reviewer for The Washington Post. Earlier, just after her marriage, she had also worked for Holiday magazine in Philadelphia.

In 1970, the Jacobus family made the important decision to move to Princeton, N.J. As she explains, "David was offered the job of vice president of basic research for Merck, then headquartered in Rahway. Where we would live was predicated on what we thought would be the most interesting life. We both felt a university town would offer so much."

It was a decision that would not disappoint. Princeton was all they hoped it would be. "I like so much about Princeton," says Mrs. Jacobus. "I like the articulateness of Princeton. Everyone has an idea about something. Freedom of thought is so important. And whether you agree with someone or not, a lot of people care deeply about the town.

"I like the involvement, intellectual and cultural. I am a big admirer of Princeton University. It adds a component to the town that enriches it, enlarges it, and gives it an intellectual luster. The Princeton University community is a very interesting community."

She also took the opportunity to continue her intellectual endeavors by auditing Princeton University courses. "I was a fond and faithful auditor," she reports. "English, history of art, philosophy — I enjoyed them all."

Princeton also offered Mrs. Jacobus a myriad of options for volunteer work, beginning in 1970, when she served as a "Pink Lady" at Merwick. Her long-time friend, Richard Golden, formerly of the School of Engineering at Princeton University, points out: "Princeton is particularly blessed in having a large concentration of people who are very intelligent, well-educated, and can bring a lot of skills and be very effective in community service. Claire is a remarkable person. She has so many talents, boundless energy, and makes such an important contribution."

Time and Talent

Indeed, Mrs. Jacobus has not hesitated to give her time and talent to numerous organizations, including serving on many boards, such as Community Without Walls, the Princeton Senior Resource Center, the Princeton Adult School, The Friends School, and the Rockingham Association. In many cases, she was chair of these boards.

She has helped community organizations, such as the Human Services Commission, the Strategic Planning Committee for the Medical Center at Princeton, the Joint Municipal Commission of Consolidation of Princeton Borough and Township, the Friends of Princeton University Library, and the Princeton Public Library.

"I really like being a volunteer," she explains. "It has nothing to do with doing good specifically. It has everything to do with thinking intellectually and conceptually about some of the largest issues we face --- end of life, old age, poverty, literacy, civil rights, how to live in a community. All these large questions that people need to deal with, and finding the most practical way to approach them and solve the problem.

"A great example is: you want to inoculate 700 seniors with the flu vaccine. You figure out the best way to get them to the Suzanne Patterson Center and make the procedure go smoothly.

And another example: "There are ways to welcome newcomers in town who many not come from the same culture, who may not speak the same language, and may be working very hard all the time. You can introduce them to the literacy program at the library, make an expedition with them to the Historical Society, take them to the local drug store and help them so they are not bewildered by a new culture. You can find the simplest ways to welcome them. You don't need a task force with a 12-page memo to figure out how to help someone."

Mrs. Jacobus' volunteer service has been eclectic and widespread, and includes her work as an Option Counselor with Planned Parenthood in Trenton. "I have done this since 1992, and I go once a week. It is a true commitment, and means an enormous amount to me," she explains.

Volunteer Work

In 2004, Mrs. Jacobus was honored for her volunteer work, receiving the Mercer County Women of Achievement Award, which cited, in particular, her work with the Princeton Senior Resource Center.

She also received the Leslie "Bud" Vivian Award for Community Service, given by the Princeton Area Community Foundation. Established by members of the Princeton Class of 1942, this award recognizes a person who best exemplifies the qualities of the late Mr. Vivian, who was highly respected for his willing, selfless, and generous support of the Princeton community.

"Receiving the Bud Vivian Award knocked my socks off!" says Mrs. Jacobus. "It was a true surprise, an enormous honor, and meant so much to me. I never thought I would get such an honor."

Also in 2004, Mrs. Jacobus became president of the Friends of the Princeton Public Library, a post that is very close to her heart. "It's a wonderful job and a fabulous library. The public library is one of the great institutions we have — good books, computers, film all available. And if you appreciate this, you can become a friend, and your money goes to buy more books, so more people can benefit. It's like a stone in the pond. I want to be the stone and make the ripples.

"Also," she points out, "in any work like this, you have to be very aware of all the work that has gone before. All that everyone did before I came on board."

This is a recurring theme in Mrs. Jacobus' thinking and conversation. "I think it is very important never to forget where you come from and be grateful for it and what people have sacrificed for you. When our son, Johnny arrived at Harvard, Peter Gomes, the Chaplain, said to the freshmen: 'You are here because of the dreams and aspirations of people you have never known.' It is very important to remember who helped you get where you are."

Creative Ideas

Many in Princeton and beyond are grateful to Mrs. Jacobus for her willingness to take on time-consuming tasks and responsibilities. Leslie Burger, Director of the Princeton Public Library, points out Mrs. Jacobus' talent to inspire.

"Claire's enthusiasm for the library is really infectious and inspires others on the Friends of the Library Council to be as enthusiastic and passionate about the library as she is. She has brought us amazingly creative fund-raising ideas, many of which have now become the foundation of what we do to ensure that the library's wonderful programs and services continue to be available to the community."

Her friend of 20 years, Rosemary O'Brien, also emphasizes Mrs. Jacobus' leadership abilities. "Claire is very good at what she does and has definite leadership qualities. I think she is unique in many ways. She is very thoughtful; she's very smart; and she does wonderful community service. I feel fortunate that she is a friend of mine, and she is fun to be with. We have taken trips together to Europe and Southeast Asia and had great times."

In addition to her volunteer work, Mrs. Jacobus points out that she found time for gainful employment from 1977 to 1992, and she is proud of it!

"I went to work in New York, editing medical manuscripts for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, taking technical medical information and translating it into understandable English. I loved it! I felt it was important to do something else then. Women were just starting to enter the work force in big numbers. I was 44, and so proud to be able to go back. I loved being in New York too. It was so vibrant and such a discipline."

Life Work

Today, Mrs. Jacobus remains as busy as ever, balancing library commitments with Planned Parenthood counseling, and her responsibilities on various boards and commissions. Very important to her is Jacobus Pharmaceutical, the company she and her husband own in Plainsboro, providing drugs for leprosy, tuberculosis, and malaria. Founded in 1977 by Dr. Jacobus, the company is associated with non-profit organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders, and provides drugs to them.

"It is our life work," says Mrs. Jacobus.

She also makes time for theater — "I am mad for it!" — here and in New York, whenever possible, for the latest performance. An enthusiastic traveler as well, she and her husband head for England every year in addition to other distant destinations.

"After New York, London is my favorite city, and we try to go twice a year, taking a week to go to dinner, the theatre, and the book stores. I have as much fun as anyone," she adds. "I love people and parties. We have a wide circle of friends, and we have dinner with them a lot. I love to talk and socialize, and people are very important to me.

"Of course, I like all the activities," she observes. "And it is wonderful to be able to give back and contribute. I certainly want to say, too, that I would not have been able to do all of this without my husband's encouragement. He has been my dearest companion for nearly 50 years. We talk endlessly. He is a wonderful man, and I admire him so much."

And, always, there are the books. Currently on her night table are a biography of Pocahantas, 1776 by David McCullough, and Fallen a novel by David Maine. Her all-time favorite, however is The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. "You find everything there --- humor, pathos, everything" she explains. "I like it so much because it is so real today, and yet it reaches back in time so far. There is a connectiveness. I also like and admire The Grapes of Wrath and the work of Henry James.

"I really have had such a rich and privileged life," reflects Mrs. Jacobus. "Parents I loved so much, a wonderful education, plenty to eat, a nice house, warm clothes, a wonderful husband, marvelous children and grandchildren. I am very grateful for the life I have had. And I do believe it is very important to try, at least to try, to understand other people and the kind of life they have. I always remember the words of author Isabel Allende: 'You only have what you give.'"

By that measurement, Mrs. Jacobus is rich indeed.

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