Jane Purinton: Always Learning, Always Teaching
The wife of Saint Mary’s new president describes the enlightening and unpredictable journey her life, career and passions have taken
It’s a lot easier to plot your life story if you know who you are. At least that’s what Jane Purinton’s journey seems to demonstrate. Married to Jim Donahue, Saint Mary’s new president, Purinton says she has had the opportunity to reinvent herself multiple times as the couple moved from west to east and back again in pursuit of ways to serve in higher education. But at the core of these transformations lies a solid sense of self.
We met for coffee at Cafe Louis, where she seemed completely at home. Saint Mary’s reminds Purinton, who grew up in Maryland, of her early years at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. “That’s where I was really given permission and encouragement to seek and expand,” she said. “College opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about the world. That’s what I love about Saint Mary’s.”
NYU, where Purinton transferred as a junior during the waning years of the Vietnam War, was another eye-opener. “A wild and wacky place,” as she put it. “Kind of a rude awakening in those tender years.” For example, they didn’t have fire drills in their building, Purinton recalled, with a wry smile. “We had bomb scares. One night after three bomb scares in a row, everybody, in their pajamas, just went around the corner to a bar. There wasn’t going to be any more sleeping that night!”
What remained the same for her at both schools, though, was the influence of teachers and mentors who made a profound difference in her life. “They didn’t penalize me for my naïveté,” she said. “They thought enough of me to just be supportive and encouraging. Having those adults in my world made all the difference.”
It’s obvious that the role of teachers and mentors—including her parents— occupies a big space in Purinton’s heart, and the progress of her life and career illustrates that.
It was a mentor in the small but intimate Religious Studies Department at NYU, where Purinton double majored in religious studies and English, who influenced her to apply someday to the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Mutual friends at GTU would later introduce Purinton and Donahue.
Purinton isn’t shy about describing a rough patch in her life in which she found herself suddenly a single mother of a two-year-o
ld, without a job or means of support. She decided to go back to school, studying computer science and math at Merritt College in Oakland. There, she met a cadre of other women students returning to school and careers whose inspiring stories and friendship have stayed with her to this day, and where she met another influential mentor. “If it hadn’t been for Mr. Olson, I don’t know how any of us would have made it through,” Purinton said. Olson took time with his students, who stood in line outside his office door “with stacks of code,” Purinton said. “We re-entry women adored him, and kept up with him for the rest of his life.”
Her computer training eventually led to a position at the Town School for Boys in San Francisco, where she did database work but after two years became the director of development at the school. By 1984, she had met and married Jim Donahue, who was teaching at Santa Clara University. When Donahue got a position at Georgetown University, the family moved cross-country and stayed there for 15 years. Purinton worked at Georgetown doing alumni relations and fundraising, participating in a major capital campaign, and—something she is particularly proud of—she worked on the Alumni College program, taking faculty on the road to offer seminars for alumni.
After three years at Georgetown, a job opening at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., attracted Purinton. In addition to all her other experience, she had been a weaver, working in a studio and managing a textile store in Berkeley. “It was almost as if the ad said, ‘Jane, this is for you.’ And it was. I spent 11 happy years there with a boss who, again, was a really great mentor.”
Purinton also volunteered at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress and served as a mentor to Georgetown political science students in a bitter dispute with neighborhood residents over voting rights. She has enjoyed watching those student activists go on to build successful political careers. Another passion for Purinton has been politics and justice.
“College opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about the world.”
When Donahue was named president of GTU, the family returned to the Bay Area. Purinton was looking for something to do, when one of the women she had met at Merritt asked her to teach technical education classes at the College of Alameda. “My work there for 10 years was the most rewarding of my life,” Purinton said. Her students were people who had seen some difficulty in their lives, and Purinton hoped she could be helpful. “Because I’d been a single mom, I could relate to some of their struggles,” she said. “And I knew that an extra five minutes, just looking a student in the eye and saying, ‘This is really good, I can tell that you tried,’—and something as simple as a smile, could really mean something.”
Purinton considers those students her mentors, too. Her passion for teaching, mentoring and justice has informed the interesting, winding road that has been her career path, a journey that she says she wouldn’t change if she could.
“The world is a very complex organism, changing all the time, and there are a lot of ways in which we can help each other get through that complexity. I’ve been in a position to fill a need when I see it, making sure, of course, that it’s a need that wants to be filled, and that I do it in the right way, without imposing on someone my own ideas about what’s right.”
These days, Jane Purinton works one day a week as a writing coach for ninth graders at El Cerrito High School. She’s weaving again, and she travels often to Maryland to visit her mother and to Washington, D.C., to see her two sons. Luke, the eldest, and his wife recently had a baby. “I’m trying now to focus on being a good daughter and grandmother.”