As the seasons changed and summer turned to fall, Jean Harriet Mortensen Doran died Sept. 24, 2018 in McKinleyville, Calif. after leading a very long and full life. She was 98 years old, but forever young.
Jean was born April 14, 1920 in Fairfield, California. Her father, Harry Mortensen, ran a grocery store in Fairfield and her mother, Leslie, was a former school teacher active in community social life, while raising Jean and her younger brother, Jack. They spent summers in a cabin her father built on Cobb Mt. and she always loved the pine forests and mountains of her childhood. Jean graduated from Armijo High School at age 16 because she’d skipped two grades in school. She went to University of California at Davis two years as an English major, but discovered her love of science. Her brother, Jack, died of kidney disease when she was in college, and she continued to tell stories and grieve for him throughout her life.
In her junior year, she transferred to the UC Berkeley. That was where she met John Denby Doran, her future husband. They both lived in the student co-op dorms, he caught her eye when he was leading a singalong of “On Top of Old Smokey”. Soon after, they had a not-so-blind date and they were a couple from then on: Den and Mort.
Jean earned a her teachers credential and graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1940. Her first job was teaching science in a junior high school in Vallejo, Calif. Meanwhile, Denby was finishing up a degree in Landscape Architecture. Pearl Harbor changed things dramatically. After grading papers in a closet during a blackout, she sent Denby a telegram that said, “To hell with my folks! Let’s get married!” They did, January 21, 1942.
They lived in Berkeley where she became a substitute teacher until Den finished his degree. For a time, they worked in the shipyards in Richmond. While he was a crane operator, she was “Rosie the Chemist,” inspecting asphalt, asbestos, and other materials. As the only woman in her department she suffered much harassment and resentment.
Denby enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943 and Jean followed him to Nebraska where he was in training. She got a job in the food service so she could at least see him when he came through the line for meals. (They must have been able to meet elsewhere because that was where their first child was conceived!) She wasn’t always able to join him as he moved around from station to station. He wasn’t there for the birth of their first child, Michael Lynn (Micki), but they were together as a family in Merced, and in Victorville, when the war ended.
After some post-war limbo, Denby was finally mustered out of the Army Air Corps and got a job as a draftsman at Shell Development in Emeryville. The family lived in Codornices Village, in west Berkeley, an integrated housing development originally built for Kaiser shipyard workers. While living there, Jean organized a co-op nursery school, and her second child, Kathleen (Kathy or Dorio) was born.
Facing a housing shortage after the war, in 1948, four families, friends from their days in Berkeley co-ops, bought land in the Berkeley hills and joined forces to build their own houses in a cul-de-sac they called Rochdale Way after the founder of the co-op movement. They hired contractors, but did most of the work themselves. There was a community playground and a co-op nursery school. The family’s third child Robert (Bob) was born while they lived in on Rochdale Way, but in 1951, seeking more sunshine, they moved to Walnut Creek in the Diablo Valley, where Jonathon (Jon) was born in 1953.
Following the birth of her sons, Jean suffered what was then called a “nervous breakdown.” It was more than just postpartum depression, and she was later diagnosed with manic-depression, which is now labeled bipolar disorder. She did have periodic manic episodes and some depression throughout the time her kids were growing up, but most of the time she lived the life of a typical stay at home mom of the era, with a group preschool, volunteer work in PTA, Girl (and Boy) Scouts, the neighborhood Walnut Knolls Association, the Weavers Guild, and Democratic politics to fill up her time and utilize her talents. She was a weaver and a stitcher, played piano, and gave her family a love of music and the arts. She loved camping and being in nature, and knew the botanical names of most plants.
She lived a relatively normal life in spite of her mental illness, but in 1966 things got worse and she was committed to Napa State Hospital. At some point she was given the drug Lithium, which was a “miracle drug” for her and other bipolar people. She said it gave her back her life. After being released from Napa in 1970, she went on to live a full life without manic episodes except when she briefly went off her meds.
Denby retired around the same time she got out of the hospital, as Shell Development moved their operation to Texas. After a hot year in Houston, the couple shifted gears to become semi-professional volunteers with the Walnut Creek Civic Arts Association. Jean used her teaching skills as a docent for the Bedford Art Gallery for over 20 years, while Den served on the organization’s board and also installed shows at art galleries around the Diablo Valley and Oakland. They attended local theatre productions and were judges for the “Shellies,” the local equivalent of the Oscars. They camped and backpacked all over California, traveled to see their kids who were all over the country, and also traveled to England, Scotland, and even Japan. They hosted Japanese students, teachers and visiting artists in their home. They still made time for their hobbies of gardening, weaving and jewelry and mobile making, and also explored pottery, stained glass, leatherwork , papermaking and bookmaking. When she was in her 70s, Jean self-published a book “Off Went Fuzzy Wuzzy,” the evolution of a story she had made up for her children years earlier ago as a preschool teacher. She had it translated into several languages and gave proceeds to UNICEF.
As Denby developed health issues in his later years, Jean became his caregiver. She once again took up driving so she could chauffeur him around. He outlived his prognosis by 8 years. After 60 years of marriage, he died in 2002 following a stroke, and she began a new chapter in her life.
She moved to Humboldt County and shared a house in Arcata with her son Bob and his wife Amy. Jean loved the “granny flat” attached to their house, and enrolled in arts courses at Humbodlt State University. She walked all over town and her student pass rode the buses for free. She was able to go to many cultural events with Bob, who was culture editor of the weekly paper and went to many things happening in the arts. She entered art shows, became a Raging Granny and stood in Friday vigils with the Women in Black protesting the Iraq War.
Still craving adventure, and with boundless curiosity and her camera in hand, she continued to travel. She toured France and Italy with Bob and Amy. She made three additional trips to Mexico with Kathy, twice to Baja and a tour of the Copper Canyon. Her last international trip was to Guatemala with a foray into Honduras.
After suffering her first broken bones at age 90, she moved to Timber Ridge Assisted Living Facility in McKinleyville. She regretted curtailing her independence, but adjusted and made good friends there, especially her best friend, Millie, and she still kept as active as possible in the community. She acted in a Dell’Arte play, Exit 101, wrote songs for the Raging Grannies and went on many outings with Bob and her other children when they visited.
As Jean’s health and mobility declined, so did her quality of life, and she finally left us to go on to new adventures. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Jean “Mort” Doran lived a long, full and purposeful life and touched so many people in her 98 years on this earth. She will never be forgotten by those who knew and loved her.
Jean was preceded in death by her brother Jack Mortensen, her mother-in law Vera Alsen, her parents Harry and Leslie Mortensen, her great-grandson Siva Kilpatrick, and her son-in-law John Perry. She is survived by her daughters Micki Perry (Kennewick , WA), and Kathleen Kilpatrick and her partner Woody Rehanek (Watsonville, CA), and her sons Bob Doran and his wife Amy (Arcata, CA) and Jonathon Doran (Wilmington, DE) and ten grandchildren: Beth, Becki, Jeannette, Jessie, Spencer, Tree, Tai, Andy, Jessica, Heather, and eleven great grandchildren: Natalie, Madeline, Timber, Fallon, Joelle, Landon, Oliver, Essine, Mirren, Talisen and Ariana, and numerous nieces and nephews and their children and grandchildren. She will be greatly missed by her family and her extended family of friends and fans.
All who remember Jean are invited to join her family in a celebration of her life Saturday, Oct. 20, at 3 p.m. at the D Street Neighborhood Center, 1301 D St. Arcata, CA. There will be stories, songs, and joy.