When I’m 81, I want to be training for an international track meet in Spain.
Not a phrase a whole lot of people have uttered in their lifetimes. But, for Jeanne Daprano, it’s pretty much par for the course. Doing exciting things is nothing new for her – and her commitment to fitness, faith, and helping others have made for a pretty amazing story.
Jeanne was born an Iowa farmer’s daughter and grew up in a small home with no running water. Money was tight, but love wasn’t.
“I didn’t realize for a long time that my peers lived different lives,” Jeanne says. “And when I did, it never bothered me. I realized later that this was God’s plan for me, to grow up simply.”
Jeanne distinctly recalls the first time the family went to church, a moment that would change her life forever.
“The entire family went,” she explains. “Grandparents, aunts, uncles, everyone joined the church together. My parents had three children at the time and we had to travel twenty miles of country roads to get there, but it was so worth it. I was three when I was baptized, and I still remember it.”
One of Jeanne’s earliest memories is of riding horseback.
“My father was a horseman and, when I was two, he bought me a slow, disabled horse to learn to ride on,” she says. “I rode every day for as long as I can remember. I rode to school and back every day. That horse has really come to be significant to me because I’ve been on a lot of horses since then, better, faster, younger horses. And I’ve seen a lot of life since then, fast-paced, career-driven, busy. These days I’m back on that slow horse of aging, grateful for life as it comes.”
Jeanne always knew she would probably marry the farm boy next door, and she was okay with that plan, but when she started the “big” local high school (which enrolled a total of 100 students), her world opened up.
“The Lord took me into fitness in high school and it’s been one of my passions ever since,” she says. “I’d always been an active, outdoorsy girl, but this was a whole new opportunity. I particularly loved basketball.”
High school also brought the realization that Jeanne had academic potential.
“The church decided that I really needed to go to college,” she explains. “So dad sold the bull and the church contributed, and I worked so I could spend two years at the Lutheran college.
I came out and began teaching third through fifth grade with my provisional credentials. My first class, in Omaha, had thirty-five students.”
Jeanne quickly realized she loved teaching and wanted to continue, so she began night school at the University of Omaha, then transferred to the University of Nebraska to complete her four-year degree in education. Afterward, she began teaching at Lincoln Air Force Base. But it was a call from her younger brother, who had gone into the Marines, that brought the next big change to Jeanne’s life.
“My brother was working with the Flying Tigers in Long Beach, California, and he told me the local district was looking for teachers,” Jeanne says. “It sounded like fun, so I interviewed and they hired me! Off I went in my little VW. I was just 25 and had no idea what was in store for me. But I was so excited!”
Her excitement was well-justified. What came next was a forty-year career in education that touched hundreds – if not thousands – of lives.
“I settled into teaching third grade and I very quickly became known as the teacher that asked for the ‘difficult’ students,” she says. “I always had a special place for kids who were struggling or needed extra help. A lot of them just had extra energy and I was still very active, so I also became the ‘running teacher.’ Every morning, we’d start our day with fitness, and it really made a difference. I ran my class like a family: we had fitness together, we learned together, we ate lunch together, we played together, we talked to each other. It wasn’t the way things were typically done, even then, but that’s how I did it and I’ve never regretted it.”
A few years into Jeanne’s career, the first of the Cambodian refugees settled in their school district.
“Those kids taught me how to teach,” she recalls. “And I absolutely fell in love. I’ll never forget my first Cambodian student, Sophia. Her family was the first refugee family to settle in Long Beach and I tried to teach using the same methods I always had. It didn’t work. The next year, we had three Cambodian children at the school and I asked to have all of them in my class. The church I attended at the time had embraced the refugees, which was unusual, and I’d begun to understand the different dynamics and needs. I was determined to figure out how to make education work for these kids.”
Jeanne says she sat down and began brainstorming, beginning with the command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. What did that mean in this case, she asked. The answer came clear as day: handle the physical needs first, then let them know you care. Then, you can teach them.
“One of the things I noticed was that picking up the language and culture was tough for our Cambodian kids,” Jeanne says. “So I worked with my church to find American families that had kids around the same age and, most weekends, I’d bring the kids home from school and they’d stay with these families over the weekend. It was really good for all the kids. And we started looking for ways to reach out to the families. We opened our home to a weekly Bible study. Some of the kids stayed with me for the summer. We got to calling it ‘Jeanne’s camp’.”
Jeanne also started looking for ways to incorporate fitness into the kids’ routines and help them find an additional source of confidence.
“I’d been running again for some time at that point and was actually in Master’s Track and Field,” she recalls. “So, I got my students involved in track, too. I took them to track meets in LA and other places, connected up with the athletic program at UCLA – lots of things like that. I could get fifty kids on the city bus and we did it often!”
Something in Jeanne’s unorthodox methods certainly worked: her students consistently maintained high test scores, despite the district’s dire predictions.
“We cared about each other,” says Jeanne. “That’s what it came down to. And we treated each other that way.”
Jeanne’s extended family became a tremendous support system when her husband of 28 years, whom she’d met her first week in California, died of cancer.
“The families I’d been reaching out to were there every step of the way when he was sick and when he passed,” Jeanne says. “It really was an incredible blessing.”
When Jeanne finally retired about a decade later, she tried her hand at being a substitute teacher, but she’d been doing things differently for so long that the typical classroom environment just didn’t work for her. So, she began casting around for something to do and returned, as always, to her love of fitness and activity.
“I’d gotten into unhealthy habits after college but, in my early thirties, I started making a lot of tiny changes and getting back into a healthier lifestyle,” she says. “A lot of it had to do with my students. I would frequently ask them to do difficult things, things they didn’t want to do, and I was very aware of the fact that they were always watching me. I wanted to teach by example.”
Jeanne started doing international track meets in her late fifties and quickly discovered she loved it. The first was in Melbourne and she’s competed in an international meet almost every year since.
“Once I really started working on it, I was amazed at what I could do,” she says. “And I think it’s important to understand that, for me, fitness is very much about my relationship with God. The Bible says our bodies are temples, and that everything we do should be for His glory. So, of course I want to take care of this temple, this life, He’s given me. And I want to live in a way that glorifies Him, always.”
“Above all, Jeanne is a Christian,” says friend and churchmate Sue Roberts. “Her whole life is about being a useful child of God. She runs for him, she volunteers for him, and she’s kind to the core.”
Once Jeanne got serious about international meets, she qualified for and joined the U.S. Master’s Track and Field team. In 1999, the team took her to a meet in England, where she met her current husband, Bill. Both were widowed, both were very active in track and field, and they hit it off almost immediately.
“We went to several of the same meets and soon realized we were a great match,” Jeanne says. “Actually, we later got to talking and realized we’d been to many, many of the same meets over the years and just never met.”
Late in 1999, Jeanne relocated to Fayette County, where Bill lived, and the two began pursuing their love of fitness together. They trained together, competed together, and took a lot of exciting trips around the world to do so.
“It’s funny, because people asked me, given how involved I am in my faith, whether I’d have a hard time being married to a Catholic, but I don’t,” she says. “He goes with me sometimes and I go with him all the times. God is everywhere and I can worship everywhere. I don’t have to kneel to pray. I worship on my walks at McCurry Park and in my workouts. I worship all the time.”
Today, Jeanne says, her primary focus in on being grateful.
“I’m aging,” she admits. “My eyesight isn’t great. My hearing isn’t as good. I have arthritis. But I am still here and active and I have a good life. Every day, I make the choice to be grateful. Everyone can do that. You can start today. I’m not always grateful for everything, but I’m working on it. And I’m so grateful for this wonderful community, for the soccer fields and for having beautiful places to go and be in nature for fitness and worship and prayer.”
She also stays incredibly busy with daily workouts, including training sessions in Buckhead twice a week, and she works with special needs children, including Bill’s granddaughter.
“We go to the Cool Kids aquatic physical therapy program, and we get out and run,” she says. “And I’ve begun running with another group of special needs kids as well. I really enjoy it and it keeps me young!”
Due to health issues, Bill has recently had to stop competing, but Jeanne is looking forward to this year’s track meet in Spain. She also runs with the Atlanta Track Club and was recently interviewed by CNN.
“I don’t run 1,000 miles a year anymore,” she says. “I mostly run on grass and I have to do some things a little differently but I’m still going. And, inwardly, I feel younger than ever.”
“Jeanne is just an amazing athlete who has an incredible ability to encourage others to be their best and to push themselves,” says friend Laura Hutsel. “She has friends of all ages and that’s really special.”
“I count her as one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever known – inside and out,” adds another friend, Lee Haney. “Her love for people, her heart, her positivity. She’s just incredible.”
Jeanne has a definite vision for how she wants to live the rest of her life.
“I want to go out of my final race worn out, spent, and full-speed,” she says. “And I want to know that I was practiced up in life, that I was the best I absolutely could be – all for His glory. That’s what it’s all about.”