Chautauqua conversations: Globetrotting doctor couple finds Chautauqua enrichment

We are sitting sitting in the sunroom of a comfortable, elegant home in the south end of the grounds. The owners of the house are relaxed and reflective as they consider their lives together and separately.

Doctors Jane Stirniman and Jeanne Wiebenga have made Chautauqua their home for more than two decades. They ooze vitality. Their over-full lives continue to enrich those of many others. Wiebenga continues to volunteer at a women’s clinic for immigrants in suburban Fairfax, Virginia, and her expertly nuanced photographs illustrate the Chautauqua Bookstore’s annual calendar.

Stirniman remains resolutely active in local and Jamestown civic organizations. She is also a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for foster children in Chautauqua County. The couple are longtime Chautauqua Opera supporters and host many summer students on the grounds for numerous dinners every year. They had recently returned from an ambitious vacation in the Peruvian Andes when we spoke.

 Stirniman: I think I was very fortunate to be born to exceptional parents. My parents were the children of farmers at the start of the 20th century. They both went to Iowa State University, in Ames. My father took a degree in what was then a brand-new discipline, in agricultural engineering. My mother got her bachelor’s degree. They then migrated west, my mother to Montana to teach, my father to teach a course at the University of California, Davis.

My parents were engaged for eight years before they got married, and then they had three children. They were living in Davis, between San Francisco and Sacramento. Then one day my father got a call from the State Department. They asked if he would be willing to go to Russia and help Stalin with his first five-year plan in agriculture. My parents talked it over and said yes. They had three children, aged 1, 3 and 5. The year was 1930. 

My mother left the three children at a kinderheim (children’s home) in Berlin, and they took off for what is now Ukraine, to a collective rice-growing farm. They stayed for two years. Then they left, having never been paid by the Russian government. They got back home to the States, with no money, and it’s the Depression. And I was born.

 But Caterpillar gave my father a job, in Australia, because my father had been uncrating the Caterpillar tractors in the Ukraine, and they liked the job he did. So when I was 6 months old, we moved to Australia. We lived there for nearly six years. I think we came home because of World War II; I never really asked.

During the war, my father was sent to the Pacific theater with the Seabees, and the rest of us returned to Brooklyn, Iowa, where my mother was born. Then, after the war, we moved to Honolulu. I was a teenager there, and I loved it. I went to the same high school where Obama went, for a couple of years. Then we returned to Iowa.

 After high school, I went to college in Chicago and decided, through a pre-med program, that I wanted to be a doctor in the third world. I joined a religious community, the Medical Mission Sisters, in Philadelphia. That was the only way I could see to do what I wanted to do. I did my two-year novitiate, and they sent me to Georgetown University Medical School. I was one of five women in the first-year class of 125.

By the time we graduated, two of us women were left in the class. There followed an internship in Philadelphia and a five-year surgical residency in St. Louis.

I was ready to go overseas and fulfill my dream. I arrived in Ghana, in West Africa, in 1970. There was a mission hospital there, 250 miles from the capital of Accra, that had been started in 1948 at the request of the chief of the village. It was in the rain forest.

It was also perfect for what I wanted to do. I had my boards in surgery. I was the only surgeon for one or two million people, and I loved it. We trained the lab techs, the ER techs and the X-ray techs. The only way we could staff the hospital was to recruit young doctors. Germany and the Netherlands would send us young doctors and give some financial support.

I was at that hospital for 10 years. In my eighth year, one of the young doctors I hired was from Holland. Her name was Jeanne Wiebenga. My life changed.

After 10 years, I didn’t want to be a nun anymore. I couldn’t stay at the hospital unless I continued to be a nun. So I came home and I got an ER job at Jamestown General Hospital. Some of my friends introduced me to Chautauqua Institution. I thought it was fabulous.

When I had a chance to do so, I bought property on the grounds. I thought this is where life was. I thought of myself as being on vacation in Chautauqua and taking work breaks at the hospital. And Jeanne joined me. And here we are.

 Wiebenga: I was born in the Netherlands. My parents came from rural communities in different parts of the country. They both ended up meeting in the center of the country, in Utrecht, where they were both in medical school. They graduated from medical school in 1939 but got engaged before my father was called up to the war. For six years he was a naval officer. During the war, my mother was running a tuberculosis hospital. They got married after the war. I was born a few years later.

My parents didn’t push me into medical school, but I did wind up going to medical school myself. My desire had always been to work all over the world. I guess I had a wanderlust, particularly for developing countries.

Maybe some of that came from my grandmother. When she was 18, she moved to South Africa from the Netherlands, and became a war photographer. I also got my passion for photography from her, I guess.

So, after medical school, I wanted to take up an opportunity in Africa. As Jane said, the Dutch government supported transfers to overseas hospitals, especially in Africa. A friend recommended Ghana, and in particular this mission hospital with lots of nuns and doctors who would teach and mentor me. So I said OK.

Jane had hired me sight unseen. She was the medical director and surgeon at this hospital cut out of the middle of the rain forest. It was a fabulous hospital, serving wide swaths of northwestern Ghana. They did primary care, gynecology and obstetrics, vaccinations for children. I never learned as much in my medical career as I did in Ghana.

 Our patients suffered from hunger and extreme poverty. Electricity and running water were extraordinary luxuries. This hospital has continued to thrive. By the early 1990s, management had successfully been transferred to Ghanaians. I have been back many times and am always inspired by their advances.

After three years there on staff, I left when my contract ended. Through Jane and others, I got an OB-GYN internship in Buffalo. I finished that in 1987 and because of my visa status I wound up returning to the Netherlands. After a couple of years there, I had a chance to return to Africa — in Malawi. Jane joined me as my partner, and we worked in an ER. We were there for three years.

Jane went back to the hospital in Jamestown, and I eventually followed her. We have been back in this area now for 20 years. During that time, I have volunteered in Ghana and elsewhere, Jane has done the same in Ethiopia. But our home has been right here in Chautauqua.

 Stirniman: We’re fine here. We have lots of friends. There is an acceptance of our relationship that is almost implicit; we don’t really think about it. We have, simply, lived our lives. And I do live and die with the fortunes of my beloved Buffalo Bills.

 Wiebenga: Actually, we have never had a situation where anyone here had any difficulty with our relationship. People have loved us for who we are. We have made so many friends here from very diverse backgrounds, particularly in the summer. We spend part of our winters away, and we have always felt Chautauqua is a unique community.

My father, in his late 80s and 90s, came here to be with us every year for many years, and he told me that if there was one place I should never leave, it is Chautauqua. My dad had traveled all over the world, basically since he was 14. For the community, the educational part of it, the lectures, the concerts, he came every year. After my mother died, my father’s visits to Chautauqua were an important part of the healing process.

For the past 20 years, we have hosted friends here from all over the world — literally. They have always wanted to come back, and they have come back. Fortunately, we have a place where they can stay.