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Jean Paton interviewed by E. Wayne Carp in Harrison AR, 1998

In June 1998, I spent a week interviewing Jean in her home in Harrison, AR.  I had just published my book, Family Matters: Secrecy and Openness in the History of Adoption, and thought I knew something about the adoption reform movement.  But after talking with Jean, I realized that I would have to rethink and rewrite much of that history because I had missed how important she had been to its creation and growth.  During that week, we hit it off and had quite a meeting of the minds.  At age 90, Jean’s mind was sharp as a tack and her memory was excellent.  She had a great sense of humor but also was extremely serious when it came to issues that mattered to her.  She got angry at hearing the name of Bill Pierce and teared up when talking about her mother.  I felt honored that she chose me to write her biography, and fortunate that she left me with the historian’s gold mine of her papers. As you can see, I am still at it.

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Jean Paton in 1939: student and social worker

In 1939, Jean applied and was accepted as a student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work.  Along with course work, Penn’s School of Social Work prepared its future social workers with extensive training in fieldwork.  For the first two years of graduate study, Jean traveled by train to Richmond to work as a caseworker with foster children waiting for placement in adoptive homes at the Virginia Children’s Home Society.


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Jean Paton’s aunt, Viola


In 1955, Paton hired a private investigator for $35.00 to find her mother. The investigator found her mother’s sister, Viola, who was still living at the old family address in Michigan, with her husband and a child.  Paton then went off to Michigan on one of her fieldtrips to interview adopted adults but also to initiate the reunion with her first mother.  Jean met Viola, who ventured to act as an intermediary, contact Jean’s mother through a neighbor’s phone, and get back to her the following day.  The rest is history, as they say.  See next photo.

Jean Paton’s reunion with her first mother

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Jean Paton, age 47 met her first mother, Emma Steiner, nee, Cutting age 69, on a spring-like day in early March 1955.  Paton’s reunion with her mother, which she described as a “strange and potent experience,” made a deep and lasting impression on her.  To one correspondent, she wrote, it was “wonderful beneath knowing,” to find one’s mother; as there was “no more specters, no more fantastic living, no more paralysis of will for avoiding the deepest desire of nature.”  Paton also universalized her reunion with her mother, making it the basis for advice she gave to correspondents who sought her help.  This photo was probably taken in Florida, where Emma moved in retirement with her husband Eddie Steiner, some years after the reunion.  (Yes, Emma was short: she was only 4’9″).

Jean Paton at work in Harrison, AR

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June and Jean at home in Cedaredge, CO

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A rare photo of June Schwantes (lower left) and Jean Paton together at home together.  There is no identification on the back of the photo.

June Schwantes at home in Harrison, AR

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This is a photo of June Schwantes, who was Jean’s life companion for some 40-odd years.  Jean met June in Hasty, Arkansas, which was June’s hometown.  They lived together for a year in 1965 before moving to Memphis, and then eventually to Cedaredge, Colorado.  June was a evangelical Christian, a RN, who became Director of Nursing at the Medical School of the University of Tennessee.  She continued her nursing career for the next two decades before retiring in 1985.  When I interviewed June in Harrison, Arkansas, last May, she got around slowly with a walker but was articulate, devote, cogent, with a good sense of humor.  June had remarkable recall of events of the past, but like most elderly people had difficulty remembering things that happened yesterday.

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The Names of Jean Paton

Jean M. Paton, an extraordinary woman of many talents, intellectual interests, and emotions, was also a woman of many names.  Born at 3:45 p.m. on December 27, 1908, in Detroit’s Woman’s Hospital, her twenty-three-year old unwed mother, Emma Cutting, named her Ruth Edwina Emerson, the middle name honoring Emma’s “favorite lady doctor” in the maternity home.  (Like most unwed mothers of the time who feared the stigma of illegitimacy, Emma registered at the Women’s Hospital under the assumed name of Cassie Emerson, made up of the reversed initials of her given name).  Adopted 4½ months later by Harry Dean and his wife Millie, Ruth Edwina was renamed Madeline Viola Dean.  A year and half later, she was adopted for a second time by Thomas Woodburn Paton and Mary M. Paton.  They changed her name to Jean Madeline Paton.  Paton would self-publish two books, numerous pamphlets, and newsletters under a combination of names.  Most frequently, she used the name given her by her second set of adoptive parents, Jean Paton or Jean M. Paton.  But she also published under the names Ruth Kittson and Jean Paton-Kittson, honoring the surname of her alleged birth father, James Kittson, the bastard son of James Jerome Hill, and builder of the Great Northern Railroad.  To complicate things even more, Jean sometimes melded her given first and middle names, then added her alleged birth father’s surname and published as Ruthena Kittson.  As a variation on this theme, she also used her alleged birth grandfather’s last name and published as Ruthena Hill Kittson.  Paton also published under the name of Ruth Edwina, which was a constant source of puzzlement to her readers.  To Jean, the explanation was self evident: when she had something really important to say about adoption reform, she published it under the name her first mother had given her.