With Fresh Eyes: A Tribute: Jean Trump


by Rich Nelson

The most inspirational and influential teacher during my schooling years shares her last name with our current President, but any similarities abruptly stop there at that surname. This teacher was a gentle, yet at times fiery, advocate for social justice, community activism, and an enlightened and engaged citizenry. Jean Trump was that extraordinary teacher, a Social Studies instructor at Muskegon High School, the school from which I graduated in 1970.  Jean taught at M.H.S. from 1962 to 1989, during which time countless accolades were bestowed acknowledging her passionate commitment to students and community.  Recipient of the Muskegon Public Schools Excellence in Teaching Award in 1982 and the Muskegon Bar Association’s Liberty Bell Award in 1987, her involvement in the Muskegon community and Democratic politics is legendary.  She became an intern in 1989, in her 60’s, after her retirement from teaching, working in Washington for U.S. Senate Majority leader George Mitchell.

Jean died in 2008, yet she remains vibrant in the lives of the hundreds of students who passed through her classroom.  I was one of those students.  In my senior year, one event in particular stood out as a defining moment which laid the foundation for my future career in social work.  Jean led our class on a road trip one wintry February day in 1970 to a community center on the south side of Chicago.  Days before, the U.S. had escalated the bombing in Vietnam, and it was evident, from our ensuing class discussions, that Jean was shaken by this.  It certainly shook a war-weary nation.

At that Chicago community center, we sat in on a staff meeting in which the debate focused on a proposal to close the center for a day to protest the bombing escalation and recent cuts in domestic funding, which put some of the center’s programs at risk.  The staff decided to keep their doors open, reaching a consensus that there were other avenues of protest available that could be pursued rather than shutting off – even for one day - the resources vital to their clients.  That experience demonstrated, in a real and concrete way, how policy decisions directly impact society’s most vulnerable, and how I now understood and appreciated, more than ever, Jean’s deep-seated commitment to sharing with us the work that was essential for impactful and lasting change.

Jean Trump would be appalled by the erratic behavior of our current president and the reactionary policies of his administration.  She would be pained in witnessing the racial profiling incidents that continue to plague our nation.  Her voice would be heard in support of the families and their children now seeking asylum and a better life.

I carried Jean’s example with me through a twenty year career in social work and fourteen years teaching Human Services at Baker College.  She gave me the direction which led to a fulfilling career.  She instilled the courage I needed to come out as a gay man without apology or shame.  Her wisdom and passion stay alive within her former students, positively impacting them in their varied journeys through life.  In her memory, and with deep gratitude and affection, I join in a collective voice with all her students to say, once more – thank you, Mrs. Trump.


Contact Rich Nelson at richmskgn@gmail.com