Dicy McCullough: Practicing the art of friendship

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 9, 2011

By Dicy McCullough
If your child went to Cleveland Elementary School during the past 20 years, you may or may not know Jean Barlow, but you probably know her work. Jean painted a mural of wild animals and sea life in the cafeteria and then later painted the lighthouses of North Carolina on one of the stairwells. The lighthouses are still there, although the mural in the cafeteria was painted over long ago.
As a child, Jean took art lessons and remembers drawing on anything she could find. One of her favorite things to draw on was her grandmother’s magazines, with another favorite being shoe boxes. She still has one of those shoe boxes from when she was about 6 or 7. Jean loved to draw so much she eventually went to college and earned an associate’s degree in art. By the time her son, Eric, started kindergarten at Cleveland, Jean’s reputation and talent were well-known in the community.
One day when she was visiting Eric’s classroom, the PTA president approached her. She told her the PTA was willing to donate paint if Jean would be willing to donate her time to paint a mural in the cafeteria. Jean agreed, and spent approximately 100 hours over a period of three months painting the mural. Children were entertained, and even now, Jean has former students tell her how much they enjoyed watching her during lunch.
Soon after Jean painted the mural, Max Gibbons, the principal at the time, hired her as a Title I reading tutor. Jean held that position for 18 years, until she retired this spring. Cleveland’s current principal, Becky Kepley-Lee said, “Jean made learning fun. Even the children who didn’t need extra help wanted to go with Mrs. Barlow. They’d often ask what they could do to be in her class.” Joy Barnette, the financial secretary added, “It’s for sure, we’re going to miss Jean. She was sweet and always willing to help where needed.”
I taught music at Cleveland during the years Jean was a reading tutor, and not only were we colleagues but also friends. Yet, when I retired five years ago, we lost touch. That is, until I saw her this past April at the Salisbury Civic Center selling painted glassware at the Spring Craft Show. The minute I saw her, it was like “old times again.” Over lunch a few weeks later,I asked Jean how she came to paint on glass. She opened up and said she started four years ago, when her dad died. After his death, she was depressed and looking for something to lift her mood. Once she began painting glass, she was hooked. She now has a following and will be at Carolina Lily for their Antique and Craft Show on Sept. 17.
I’ve always admired Jean’s artistic ability, but little did I know how this would play into my life. She encouraged me to do a few craft shows, thinking they would give exposure to my children’s books. I came to see rather quickly getting ready for craft shows is hard work, and I decided my niche is reading in schools, libraries or YMCAs. Jean was helpful with this, too, and even went with me to face paint characters from my books at several readings, never asking for anything in return.
I’m glad I went to the craft show in April and reconnected with an old friend. I feel we were brought together for a reason, but only time will tell the rest of the story. Just like the song says, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.” Friends like Jean certainly are gold. What in this world could be better than one good friend? Perhaps two …?
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Dicy McCullough is a children’s author who lives in Rowan County. Contact her at 704-278-4377 or her website, dicymcculloughbooks.com.