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Jeanne Weigum – a quintessential activist

“I drive into my town from [highway] 280, and I don’t see the skyline. I see billboards, I see commercials, and that’s not my town. My town isn’t a bottle of beer.”
– Jeanne Weigum

Growing up on the prairies of central South Dakota, Jeanne Weigum learned first hand about the value of natural beauty.

A railroad engineer by occupation, Weigum’s father kept a pasture full of horses, cats, chickens, ducks, guinea hens and even peacocks. “They were absolutely nonfunctional,” Weigum laughed at the memory of the ornamental birds, “but he loved them.”

Early lessons
Meanwhile, Weigum learned the importance of community at her mother’s knee. Her mother was an activist who worked on volunteer projects far and near. “My mother was never one to tolerate injustice. She wasn’t an organizer the way I am, but she was very involved in her community. She saw that she had a role to play.” The role included volunteering locally on school and church committees and globally, such as the time she pressed young Jeanne’s Girl Scout troop into service, encouraging them to sew clothing for babies and children displaced in Eastern Europe by the Soviet crackdowns of the Cold War era.

It wasn’t only the meetings that made an impression on Weigum. Her mother also hosted canasta parties at home. Several of the players were heavy smokers, and Weigum recalls retreating to her second-story bedroom and stuffing towels in the door to keep out the clouds of smoke. “Secondhand smoke always bothered me,” she said. “I cannot think of a time that it didn’t.”

Weigum left South Dakota to study in Minnesota, first at Bethel College, and later at the University of Minnesota, where she earned a master’s degree in social work in 1966. She worked as a consultant in community corrections for Hennepin County until the fall of 2006. “Criminal justice is one of my greatest passions,” Weigum said. But she realized that in her job she would have to content herself with making a difference one case at a time, one person at a time. Weigum channeled her interest in community organizing and policy advocacy into her volunteer work, making a mark that would prove indelible.

Where there’s smoke …
In 1975, Weigum happened to catch sight of an ad in the local paper, calling for people to join a group called the Association for Nonsmokers’ Rights (ANSR). At a local membership meeting she recognized one of her neighbors, a veteran whose lungs were damaged in World War II, for whom secondhand smoke was not only an annoyance, but a serious health hazard. He gave her the courage to get involved. “Not being a shy soul,” she laughed, she quickly made an impression on the group and accepted a leadership position soon after.

Thirty years later, that group is now the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota, and its goals have remained constant. With Weigum and other anti-smoking activists calling for action, the Freedom to Breathe Act was passed by the Minnesota Legislature this May and went into effect on Oct. 1. Under the terms of the act, any workplace in the state with more than two employees must be smoke-free.

Weigum dismisses any idea of her work being over. “Passing the law didn’t change smoking rates. Young people are still starting to smoke every day,” she said. ANSR is working to provide resources for property owners to make their apartments smoke-free. And, she is actively working with veterans’ groups as they transition to smoke-free VFWs and American Legion Halls.

Get involved
Passionate about nonsmoking? www.ansrmn.org

Want to help rescue or adopt pets? www.secondchancerescue.org

Opposed to billboards? http://scenicsaintpaul.org

Weigum’s work with smoking bans have kept her in the headlines and have made her a target for criticism. One particularly vitriolic blogger nicknamed her “The Queen Bee of Social Engineering” and regularly compares her to Adolf Hitler. Such attacks provoke nothing more than amusement from their object. “I’ll put my life up against [the blogger’s],” Weigum said confidently. “Tell me what he’s done to save a life, improve a life or improve a community.” She laughed “Bring it on!”

Activist extraordinaire
Less well known are Weigum’s activities on behalf of Scenic St. Paul, an organization fighting the proliferation of billboards in her adopted hometown. She was originally drawn to the cause from her concern for the city’s visual environment. “I drive into my town from [highway] 280, and I don’t see the skyline. I see billboards, I see commercials, and that’s not my town. My town isn’t a bottle of beer. I don’t see the beautiful buildings, the places where people live. I see ugliness. I see blight.” Soon, Weigum learned of the complex tangle of ancient zoning laws that govern billboards, laws that can actually delay redevelopment of urban neighborhoods. “And the money from billboards isn’t here in the community,” she said. “It goes to corporations,” like Clear Channel or ABC, both headquartered in other states. Add the movement toward digital billboards, whose scrolling messages pose a potential driving hazard, and Weigum saw another public health movement on her hands. “I’ve got a lot of energy,” Weigum laughed.

Weigum expends some of that energy serving on the board of the Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County and to foster homeless dogs with Second Chance Animal Rescue. Her concern for animals is another gift from her mother. Weigum remembered her mother tending to newly hatched chicks with legs badly bent from forming improperly inside their shells. Her mother attached toothpicks to the chicks’ tiny legs as makeshift splints. She never gave up, and today, neither does her daughter.

Weigum once ran marathons, but health problems led to ending her grueling training regimen. “I was working out four hours a day. When I stopped, all of a sudden I had all this bonus time.” That “extra time” led to a new passion: community gardening. She dug up a plot outside of O’Gara’s Pub in St. Paul and was awarded a plaque labeled “To The Mystery Gardener of Snelling Avenue” by the amused patrons. Her handiwork is in evidence at the highway entrance of Snelling and I-94, and at several strips in the median along Summit Avenue.

To Weigum, gardening isn’t just about remaining active after she stopped running. It’s part of a continuum of activism she saw at her mother’s kitchen table-and the thread that runs through her life, a personal philosophy of a kind of holistic view of what a community needs. She connects her community gardening to her work in the criminal justice system. “If a community looks cared for, it feels safe. People are safe. You can’t feel unsafe in a garden.”

And, she said, it’s a further injustice that visual pollution is concentrated in the poorest of neighborhoods. “It’s a uniquely urban problem. There are no billboards in suburbia.”

Weigum said she may have more energy and organizational skills than others, but she believes anyone can make a difference in their community. She proved this point almost without thinking. Walking down the street to her office with this writer to begin our interview, she reached into the gutter on University Avenue and picked up an empty bottle. Later she explained, “I can’t take care of the world. I can’t pick up every bottle. But I can pick them up on my corner.” With that, the bottle landed safely in her office’s recycling bin. “If you feel like you have to do everything, you can’t do anything. But if you’re OK with taking care of your corner, you can do it.”

“Follow your passion,” she would tell a person today who might be mulling a newspaper call for volunteers, much like she did 30 years ago.

Like a true gardener, she added: “Bloom where you grow.”