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Jean (Tolsma) Brender '74

  • Whitworth Major: Nursing
  • Master of Nursing, University of Washington
  • Ph.D. in Epidemiology, University of Washington
  • Professor Emerita, Epidemiology & Biostatistics, Texas A&M University School of Public Health

Dennis Brender '75

  • Whitworth Major: Chemistry
  • DDS, University of Washington
  • Dental Practice Owner, 1984-2018
  • Residence: Austin, Texas

'You've got to take care of the stranger' 

JB: We met at Whitworth on a Saturday night. Back in those days we had "steak night" at SAGA. It was always a special night. I was sitting with my dorm friends and we were talking about how hard it was to get a date. There was this young man sitting to the right of me, and I turned to Dennis and said, "Well, I guess I should introduce myself." We introduced ourselves to each other and then we found out that our homes [in Washington state] were only 30 miles apart. So that started a relationship. We married four years later, in 1975.

DB: When I sold my dental practice and retired [in 2018], I was trying to give away my dental chair. I went to tattoo parlors and everywhere else I could think of. The free Catholic community clinic had just started, and they had opened a small dental clinic. I thought they'd need a dental chair but they had gotten a grant from a local hospital for that. They said, "What we really need is you and your dental license." So I do that now. A lot of people the clinic treats have lost their job, especially with COVID, and they just need help. It could be blood pressure meds, diabetes, or some rotten teeth that need pulled. It's been very good – you are taking care of someone who is grateful to be taken care of.

JB: After I retired, I taught English as a Second Language through Manos de Christo and our church. But my main volunteer activity has been with the Austin Street Youth Ministry, where I volunteered onsite for about five years. Since the pandemic, I've mainly been bringing food and supplies to the ministry each week, and Dennis helps me. I am also an ordained deacon with the Presbyterian church and a deacon moderator. I am working on an M.A. in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary as well as certification in spiritual direction through the Selah Certificate Program in Spiritual Direction.

DB: The Gospel of Matthew says you've got to take care of the stranger. Everybody I treat [at the clinic] is a stranger and they don't have any other way to get help. It's kind of living out my faith – you know you're making a difference and you'll probably never see them again.

JB: Matthew 25 talks about feeding the hungry and giving water to the thirsty. How Jesus took care of the poor and the vulnerable is a model for discipleship. As a Christian I feel obligated to do that, and as my faith grows I think that I am empowered to do that. Our tendency is to think of ourselves, but this is a way to feel that I am walking in a way that Jesus would want me to walk, by taking care of other people.

Our church family is important to us. Being a deacon, I have had the opportunity to help parents welcome a new member to their family – the babies – who are now also new members of our church. But I also support people who are dying and pray for them in their last days, and that's been meaningful as well. All my life I have been in a helping profession, whether it was nursing or being an epidemiologist or being a professor, but I was paid. This goes a little beyond that where, as Dennis said, you are giving back and you don't expect anything in return other than it's a blessed thing to do. You get a blessing from helping others. 

JB: I came from very modest circumstances. My dad was a farmer and he had had some rough years in farming. I was geared up to go to a three-year nursing school, which would have been OK, but it wasn't a liberal arts education that I got at Whitworth. It was because of Whitworth's generosity of giving me a scholarship that I've been able to accomplish what I have accomplished in my life. [The Brender Scholarship*] is a way to give other students a chance that was given to me. I've been so grateful for the opportunity I had. 

DB: My Whitworth professors took me under their wing and got me through science. I wouldn't have made it otherwise. I was part of a group that was well taken care by Robert Winniford, a chemistry professor; Robert Bocksh, who was biochemistry; Ed Olsen, who was geology; and Howard Gage, who was mathematics and computer science. They were dedicated. We weren't there for a grade, we were there to learn and to pass the baton on. We sensed that. 

JB: I thoroughly enjoyed the Core courses. I loved the interdisciplinary nature of them and what we covered. I carried what I learned from those for the rest of my life. Every week we would have Forum, and [Whitworth] brought in some of the most amazing speakers. Whitworth's sense of community was beautiful. I appreciated how they integrated the Christian faith with education. It wasn't forced, it was just the way people lived and how they treated the students and the opportunity to explore one's faith through courses and extracurricular activities. 

DB: Core 150 sticks with you and you refer back to those principles the rest of your life.

JB: As far as advice I would give myself when I was 20, I would tell myself to forget the negative people and the negativity that surrounds you and that bothers you so much. Just keep your eyes on your goal and what you want to accomplish and take care of other people around you.

DB: Write down everything you want to accomplish, everyone you want to meet, what professions you want to do, how you want to live. Put it in a drawer and then ask God to bless your list. You look at it every day, or sometimes you only look at it once a month. That list is your guide to your life. Sometimes you have to amend your list, add on or sometimes subtract. [Researchers] did this with people who graduated from Harvard back in the 1940s, and they found that everyone who wrote down what they wanted to do not only fulfilled their list but also exceeded their list. It's in a book called It Works. It's an old book and it's old-school technology but it does work. I made my list 35 to 40 years ago.


JB: As far as my overall legacy, I want to be known as somebody who cared for other people, took care of them and made a difference. Ultimately, as a Christian, to love God above all and love my neighbors as myself.

DB: Again, this is management, but write your eulogy. And then imagine you are the person telling the rest of the audience about yourself. After that you start fulfilling your eulogy during your lifetime. 

JB: For one of my Fuller classes we had to visit a cemetery. Dennis and I visited two cemeteries, and I think that really brought to me the focus of a legacy, reading what was on people's gravestones, seeing what people wrote about [their loved ones] and how they remembered them. That was a very good experience. I think we all probably need to go visit a cemetery once in a while. 

*The Brender Scholarship, established in 2016, supports Whitworth athletic training, pre-med and health science majors.