Jayne Bibb graduated from the Sewanee School of Letters in May.
Thirty-seven years after leaving Sewanee following her freshman year, Jayne Bibb came back to the Mountain as a 56-year-old sophomore. And after earning a bachelor’s degree, she decided she wasn’t done just yet.
BY KATE PARRISH
Jayne Dzuback Bibb, C’13, L’18, likes a challenge. In fact, the bigger the challenge, the more inclined she is to take it on. Not because she has something to prove, but because she is genuinely curious about what lies on the other side of accomplishment. What will she have learned? How will she have been transformed? What door will it open next?
Last month, Jayne, 64, earned her master of arts degree from Sewanee’s School of Letters graduate program, just five years after completing her Sewanee bachelor’s degree at age 59. Master’s degree in hand, Jayne marked the end of a journey to Sewanee that began nearly four decades ago, one interrupted by marriage, motherhood, and a career in the banking industry.
Jayne first arrived in Sewanee as an undergrad in 1972 as part of the University’s fourth class of women. A transplant from Plainfield, New Jersey, Jayne, whose mother was from Chattanooga, was taken by the pace of life in the South and the beauty of Sewanee. They’d moved around a lot when she was a kid—12 cities in 18 years—so here was a place where she could finally settle in and focus on her studies. Only that wouldn’t be what happened. When she finished her freshman year in the spring of 1973, she had no idea it would be 37 years before she would return to complete her undergraduate degree.
“I was not real interested in getting to know him,” she says, without a hint of arrogance, recalling the young man in the fall of 1972 who was very interested in getting to know her. “The third time he asked me out, I was ready to say no again.” Over coffee at Stirling’s, Bibb, standing at about five feet nothing, dressed in a modest cornflower blue blouse, unfussed-with hair pulled halfway back, seems like the kind of person who has probably been called “sweet” her whole life. Like she couldn’t be mean if she tried. So, it’s not surprising when she more cringes than gloats as she recounts those early encounters with the man who would soon set her life on a different track.
“I was ready to say no again but then he said something intriguing. He said, ‘You’re really going to miss out.’ That sort of made me stop,” she says. It sounded like a challenge, and what if he was right? What if she did miss out? “So I said, ‘OK, OK,’ and it was the best date I ever had. The rest is history.”
Julian Bibb, C’73, was a senior when Jayne began her freshman year. Despite the rocky starts he encountered getting Jayne to agree to a date, the pair fell in love immediately. Julian was headed to Nashville to begin law school at Vanderbilt University after graduation, and Jayne knew she was going, too.
It wasn’t a decision she took lightly, but it wasn’t a hard decision to make. “I loved Sewanee, but [our relationship] would not work without me leaving. So it was a matter of I want to be with him. I want to be married to Julian,” says Jayne. “And I had always thought I would finish. I never had a doubt I would finish school. I just didn’t realize it was going to take this long to get back. And I don’t regret that at all.”
The couple was married in 1974 and had their first son, Julian, C’97, that same year. After Julian would come Polly, C’05, Joseph, and John. Jayne, one of six children herself, always wanted a big family.
Following graduation from law school, Julian quickly began to establish a career in banking law, joining Stites & Harbison in Franklin, Tennessee, just outside Nashville. Jayne was taking night courses in banking and working full-time as a lending officer.
But after Polly’s arrival, Jayne left the banking business. The couple knew they wanted more children, and Jayne was ready to be at home with them. Homework, after-school clubs, travel team sports—Jayne’s days were filled with the activities of her children. She was there for it all. She loved not missing a moment.
“Out of the blue one day, Julian asks me, ‘Are you going back to school?’" says Jayne, the same look of surprise on her face retelling the story now as was likely there the day her husband posed the question. It was around 2009. The Bibbs' youngest son, John, was heading into his junior year of college. The kids were gone and Jayne’s days, once full with the comings and goings of her four children, were now full of church and community commitments.
What Julian didn’t know when he asked Jayne about school was that she’d been secretly researching universities in the Nashville area. “I’m investigating and writing off for catalogs, getting the mail before Julian, and reading them on the sly,” says Jayne. “I’m really prayerfully considering this. I’m not going to move forward if I don’t feel like the Lord is saying, ‘Yes, the door is open. You may walk through.’ But there was this sense of it’s time, it’s time. Julian saying that to me was the beginning of the affirmation of that.”
When Jayne shared with Julian what she’d been considering, finding an adult-education program in Nashville, he had another idea. He thought Jayne should return to Sewanee, to finish what she started where she started it.
“I burst into tears. I did not think that was ever going to happen, and that was OK. It really was. I had no complaints about that at all,” she says. “And yet when he said that, that just about blew the doors off me.”
In the fall of 2010, at age 56, Jayne re-enrolled at Sewanee as a sophomore.
A lot had changed on campus since Jayne first arrived in 1972, mostly in the way of technology. But a lot was still the same. Sewanee was still an environment that made her want to be a better person—a person with integrity, a person who was well read, a person with compassion for others. For Jayne, those things were as native to the landscape as the sandstone.
Jayne decided on a major in English and threw herself into her studies. The home the couple own in Sewanee became Jayne’s dorm, library, and cafeteria. As Julian continued working in Franklin, Jayne dug into Chaucer and Shakespeare.
“If Jayne had not had a kind of infectious enthusiasm for what she was studying, in a way, the ambition and sophistication of her ideas, her bringing a whole set of life experience to the study of Shakespeare, that could have been off-putting to an ordinary undergraduate,” says Pamela Royston Macfie, Jayne’s undergraduate advisor and her professor in a Shakespeare course. “But there was something about her personality, her genuine sense of surprise in things that utterly disarmed people, and she was absolutely a regular part of the class. I do think people looked to her for a kind of intellectual leadership."
During Jayne’s senior year in 2013, Macfie encouraged her to write an honors thesis. Intimidated by the scope of work, Jayne wasn’t sure she was on board for such a big commitment. Then Kelly Malone, another professor in the English department, said the magic words, almost the exact same words Julian had said to Jayne more than three decades ago, just as she was about to turn him down again. Malone said to Jayne, “You’ll regret it if you don’t."
Under Macfie’s direction, Jayne wrote an honors thesis during her senior year, tackling Hermia’s dream from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“When I finished that, and it was an incredibly rewarding experience,” says Jayne, “I had the sense that I wasn’t quite finished.”
She wasn’t finished. Not by a long shot.
Jayne graduated in 2013 with a degree in English. Four of her closest friends from her original class threw her a massive party in the Monteagle Assembly. She’d finally finished what she’d been waiting decades to do.
But for a woman who’d just started to get a taste of the literary life, she knew there was more to be had.
In the summer of 2014, Jayne began work on a master of arts degree in English in Sewanee’s School of Letters graduate program. For four summers, Jayne returned to Sewanee to immerse herself in literature. Julian held down the fort in Nashville during the week, visiting on weekends.
“My husband is my biggest cheerleader. He is an incredibly generous man,” says Jayne. “He has always been supportive of this, the frontrunner of it, and been behind it 1,000 percent. My children, too.”
In September 2017, Jayne began work on her graduate thesis, an exploration of gardens and weddings in three works of female-authored fiction, examining allusions to the Book of Revelation and to works by Shakespeare and Ovid. Emails flew back and forth between Jayne in Sewanee and her thesis director, Jenn Lewin, a former Sewanee English professor now living in Haifa, Israel, and teaching at the University of Haifa.
“In the best cases, a working relationship on a thesis project generates new discoveries for both professor and student alike,” Lewin writes in an email. “Due to her strong grasp of not only the material at hand but also the background in classical and biblical literature, Jayne produced stunning new insights that none of the previous published scholarship had revealed. Her work will have a lasting impact on those who read it and it certainly has had a strong impact on how I think about both the literature itself and the topic of allusion.”
Jayne defended her thesis in April and graduated from the School of Letters in May. She’s working on expanding her thesis and researching journals to which she might submit her work for publication.
After a 40-year law career, Julian retired in 2017, the same year Jayne lost her father. With school complete and Julian retired, it might seem like the couple would have more time on their hands, but with six grandchildren, ranging from 18 months to 12 years old, life has not slowed down. The Bibbs stay active in many community organizations and nonprofits, committing their time and resources to serving others.
Rather than look too far ahead, Jayne prefers to stay in the moment. It’s a skill perfected only by those who have had to learn to wait, by someone who waited more than 30 years to fulfill a dream.
“It’s so important to embrace where you are at the time, to live fully in the moment, and to look around and appreciate all those people who are with you, standing with you, cheering you on, and how you can cheer them on, how you can be there for them as well,” says Jayne. “I’ve had this incredible life of the fullness of motherhood and being a homemaker. I had a career before that. Then I get to come back to not only earn my degree but to do it in the place I started. I cannot tell you what a wonderful, indescribable gift that was for me.”