Pat Jennings: Harvard’s 2017 Citizen of Note

Pat Jennings. (Photos by Lisa Aciukewicz)

For years, some who know Pat Jennings have fondly called her the Energizer Bunny behind her back—and even to her face. Now they, along with everyone else in town, can upgrade to a more dignified sobriquet: “Citizen of Note.” And the reasons for both epithets are the same: Pat Jennings is full of energy and she expends much of it volunteering in town organizations and serving on committees.

This reporter caught Jennings in a rare moment when she was sitting down on her side porch, with nothing in her hands to be working on other than a glass of iced tea. She said receiving the honor of 2017 Citizen of Note at the 2018 Annual Town Meeting was a wonderful moment. “That this [volunteering] is the reason for it strikes close to home,” she said. “It was special to have my ‘bud’ Lucy give it to me.” Jennings said she believes she’s used her talents well, and it was rewarding to be thanked for them. She reflected that in her younger days she would toss off a thank-you for something she accomplished, but in her older age she savors those plaudits.

Jennings described her total surprise at Town Meeting. She heard her name but didn’t really react. Next thing she knew, her daughter Della told her to stand up. She did, and then Della directed her past rows of people. It wasn’t until she was at the front of the gym that it finally dawned on her what was happening. Della had been instrumental in keeping the tribute a secret. When they arrived at Town Meeting, Della had handed her mom an Annual Report—with the front page torn out. Jennings said she had flipped through the report, paying attention only to how nice it all looked.

Volunteering seems second nature to Jennings. She attributes it to having been born with a lot of energy, being an athlete, which has kept her in shape and therefore feeling good, and being interested in lots of things. She has been a longtime member of the Warner Free Lecture Trust, the Congregational Church, the Harvard Woman’s Club, the Garden Club of Harvard, and, more recently, the Friends of the Council on Aging, the Hildreth School Council, and the Historical Society—and she takes an active role in all of these organizations.

Pat Jennings mixes pie crust for the Congregational Church’s apple pie sale in 2015.

Committees with goals

It’s clear Jennings seeks a role on committees that have a specific goal. She was clerk of the works for the church’s addition; a member of the sewer committee that used five years of work from past committees, took advantage of a rule change, and finally got the sewer done; a member of the Hildreth House Improvement Committee that developed and completed phase one of the Hildreth House renovations; and one of the prime movers behind the Friends of COA’s First, First Night. Does she rest on her laurels when a committee’s goal has been met? No, she finds another group with a project. “I’ve been lucky,” she said. “All the committees that I’ve been on have been great. They take action.”

Right now, she is most excited about the War Monuments Committee, currently working on restoring the World War I monument on the Common. The granite for the base has been ordered to replace the cracked cement, and the bronze plaques have been restored. It’s going to be just beautiful, Jennings said, visibly passionate about the project. The committee had been rushing to get everything done by Memorial Day, but decided to plan a ceremony for Armistice Day instead. On Nov. 11 at 11 a.m., the church bells will ring out.

Jennings said she has no personal connection to the military, but she has always been particularly interested in World War II. A few years ago she went on a trip to Normandy where her group traced every day of the battle. “It was a life-changing experience,” she said. She was in total awe of how it all happened: “We won that war by the hair of our chinny chin chin,” she said.

Never a procrastinator

Of interest to this perennially disorganized reporter was how Jennings manages to keep all her committees straight and do everything she has offered to do. She reminded me that I had asked her this before and that she then patiently explained her method. As soon as she gets home from a meeting, she goes to her large desk calendar, fills in any future dates and writes down what she agreed to do. She has a folder for each committee in which she files relevant material. The next day she goes to her calendar and does what she needs to do—like “Call Lynch Paint for quote on paint for flagpole.” Then she crosses off that item. After that, she can enjoy the day. It’s very freeing to know that everything on the calendar is done, she said. Then the crucial—and crushing—words: “I have never been a procrastinator.”

Jennings honed her organizational skills over many years as a caterer. She did a lot of weddings and would sit down with the bride and talk about all the details of the wedding. Then both Jennings and the bride would make a to-do list. In 10 days, Jennings would call the bride to compare their “done” items. Then they would meet again and make new lists. Catering was something Jennings kind of fell into. Her daughter Della belonged to the Pony Club of Groton, and Jennings attended gatherings there. At one point she was asked to bring sandwiches. A few days later she had a phone call: “You know what you did for the Pony Club? Well, I’m having an engagement party, and … ”

Flaming jubilees

During her catering days, Jennings traveled frequently to attend cooking classes and work with chefs at some of the grandest hotels in the country. One was the The Greenbrier in West Virginia. Jennings came away most impressed with the fancy cherries jubilee she had learned to make. When she got a job to cater a wedding at the French Embassy in Boston, she suggested the jubilee as a replacement for a wedding cake, which the bride had said she didn’t want. Jennings got her usual crew of several friends from Harvard. The plan was that when it was time for dessert, the caterers would walk through the dining room, slowly, like a wedding march, with flaming jubilees held on high. In a last-minute effort to keep the cans of Sterno from sliding around under the chafing dishes, Jennings stuffed pieces of bread around them. The lights went out in the room, the jubilees were blazing, and the procession started. Partway through Jennings heard her name whispered behind her and heard Teddy Coffin say, “Pat, go a little faster, the bread is turning to toast.”

In 1992 Jennings moved to a large house in New Boston, New Hampshire. She planned to retire from catering—not because of the jubilees, which made it around the dining room without the smell of burned toast. But the phone rang—“You did those sandwiches for that engagement party ... ”—and she was off again. Soon she was booked every weekend and needed help. She asked a couple of young men who mowed her lawn, who asked a few of their friends, and soon she had a full crew. At that point Jennings went into her house and brought out a picture of herself, smiling amid her fleet of five young men. “Boys will not rearrange your table. They do what they’re asked to do,” she declared.

A return to Harvard

By 2007 Jennings was thinking about returning to Harvard. With her daughter Della back in Harvard, she was coming down once a week to baby-sit her two granddaughters and would run into friends around town. But it took her mother’s death for her to actually move. Her mother lived in Pennsylvania, and Jennings made trips to visit her, but she was overwhelmed by the “mess” she found in settling her mom’s estate. She vowed then and there that she would not leave such “junk” and disorder for her girls to deal with. The big house in New Boston went on the market. “You never know what’s going to happen,” she reflected. “I want to enjoy every day. Every day is an adventure.”

Pat Jennings (center) hands out ribbons to winners during the Fourth of July antique car competition in 2014.

She couldn’t find a small house in good condition in Harvard and ended up renting a cottage on Still River Depot Road. She laughed as she said how many people, running into her around town, would remark on how they hadn’t seen her for a while. Jennings had been in Still River about four years when her friend Sue Barber asked her after church one Sunday if she wanted to “go be nosy” at the open house for the condos in the old inn on Fairbank Street. Jennings fell in love with a unit on the first floor, put money down, and made arrangements to buy it. “I don’t believe in coincidence,” she said. “I believe there’s a pattern, and I was in the right place at the right time.” The other units were gone by Wednesday.

As we sat on her small side porch, it was easy to see why Jennings loves her location. She is tucked away but has vantage of the Common, the old library, and all that’s going on in the center of town. She can greet people walking by, many with their dogs. Among other things, Jennings has a dog-sitting business and so she always has treats. She is in charge of landscaping the property, and she proudly pointed out the trimmed front bushes and the “work in progress” on the side bank.

‘I never say no’

Jennings is also proud of her two granddaughters, one a sophomore in college and the younger graduating from high school this year. As her senior Gateway project for Parker School, Meaghan had run a half Ironman in Puerto Rico early this spring at which Jennings was present to root her on. She clearly loves being close to family and doing things with them spontaneously. “I never say no to anything,” she grinned.

It’s clear Jennings has deep affection for Harvard, and that’s one of the things that motivates her to volunteer. She said Harvard “hangs together” through good times and bad. When someone’s husband dies, people organize comfort, food, and hugs. That person pays it forward when someone else’s house burns. “If I needed to call on people for something, I know I could.”

In talking about discussions at Town Meeting, Jennings reflected that a new generation is starting to run things. “We want people to come to town, to be active, to be a spokesperson for a passion,” she said. “But while we need new ideas, we also need the spunk of the old guard to pass down traditions.” Some things have to change, but she would say this to new leaders of Harvard: “Go forward—but carefully.”

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