LEFT: Jeanne Zuidema relaxes with her rottweiler,
Alicia, at their home in Lantana. Photo by Jerry Lower
By Jan Norris
When she retires May 31 after nearly 28 years as a Police Department dispatcher for Ocean Ridge, Jeanne Zuidema’s career is going to the dogs. Literally.
“I have a full schedule with the Rising Start Rottweiler Rescue organization,” she said. “I do fostering with them. Last year, we rescued 26 rottweilers and found permanent homes for them. But we need more foster families.”
But that’s only part of the story of a woman with several careers and interests.
“This (dispatching) is my fourth career,” she said. “Growing up, I wanted to be a teacher, or a movie star. I got to do both.”
In the early 1950s, Zuidema was the star of a children’s program Jeanne and her Magic Farm on Channel 5 in West Palm Beach. After a couple of years of entertaining the local tot set in black and white, she retired, got married and started her own family.
Once her kids were in school, she, too, went back to the classroom as an elementary teacher. That career lasted a decade.
“As a matter of fact, some of my students later became police officers,” she said. She would meet them during her later tenure with the Ocean Ridge Police Department.
After giving up teaching, she took up the guitar. While learning to play, she taught youngsters.
“It was 1967. Everybody got a guitar for Christmas. So we started a group.” Out of that grew a folk Mass youth group with 40 teens at the Holy Spirit Church in Lantana.
The kids came and went from the group, but for 15 years, a core group of six or eight young people stuck with it. With Zuidema, they formed the New Life Singers and began touring.
“We made a few records with Opal Records,” she said. “The teens who were 13 or so when we started graduated, went on to college or got married.”
Zuidema was newly divorced, and needed to support herself. Now what to do? “My brother-in-law was a police officer, and suggested that since I was so good with people, I would be a natural for the dispatcher job open at Ocean Ridge.”
She applied and got the job — and has been there for 28 years, through four chiefs and numerous calls.
“Mostly we get public service calls. We have time for public service because where other agencies are going from [live] crime-to-crime as it’s reported happening, we get a report of crime after it’s over.”
Petty theft, car break-ins — small stuff that still, in this city, is rare — are the norm.
One disturbing crime on the rise, she said, is domestic calls. “Most of it is related to substance abuse. Very rarely do we get a call in which both partners are substance-free. And, I’d say the stress of the economy as well is having an impact on the number of these calls.”
But the dispatchers are trained to take care of anything. “The most shocking call, I’d have to say, is out of the blue, the phone rings, and I hear the dispatcher say, ‘Is it completely severed?’ Some man had cut his arm completely off with a chain saw. He had left a suicide note and intended to kill himself.”
She also was there when a call came in from a person who had survived after two others in the house died from carbon monoxide poisoning, after accidentally leaving their car running in the closed garage. “You never know what you’ll get when you pick up the phone. You have to be ready.”
Dozens of calls involve lost pets — spurring Zuidema to partner with a police officer to create a Pet File program. “We just issued tag No. 1,000,” she said.
Office Wavell “Doc” Darville and Zuidema started the program in 1997, and a resident paid for the first group of metal tags. Dog (and cat) owners in Ocean Ridge can get a numbered tag for their pet, have a photo of the pet and its owner’s contact information put on file in the Police Department.
“It was traumatic for us, the pets and the owners. We had no kennel here, and we’d have to turn the pets over to Animal Control. There, the animal could pick up any kind of thing. So Doc and I came up with the ideas for the pet tags, with the Police Department phone number on them. We now have a big portable dog kennel and a smaller one we use for pelicans, too.”
This was one of the most rewarding parts of her job, she said, though she loves the public service work and says she’ll miss it.
She’s enjoyed the careers, the people she’s worked with and the variety of work she’s done, but isn’t looking back.
“I’m ready to move on. I was going to try to make it to 70 and 30 years, but I have some health issues. Thank God they’re not life threatening, but I’m definitely slowing down.”
But her idea of slowing down would weary others. Now 69, she plans to travel to her second home in Williston, S.C., to see her son in nearby Aiken. She wants to spoil her only grandson, a 22-year-old who is in a band. “It’s a good thing I have only one (grandchild). I’d have to have a whole bunch of credit cards to spoil them,” she said.
She says she’ll pick up her music once more, as well. “It’s always been important to me.”
And she’ll continue to practice reiki, a spiritual form of healing through touching. “I’ve been practicing on pets, family and friends. I have more clients that are animals than people,” she said.
For her spending money, she’ll pet sit. That’s another sidebar. She started by keeping iguanas for her kids’ teachers over the summer vacation decades ago. People found out she’d be willing to keep iguanas, and she’s tended to several over the years.
“I have one now I was only supposed to be fostering that I got 10 years ago. Last I heard, his owner was in Europe. Willie became mine and lives in an outdoor habitat.”
To pet sit as a business just came to her one day, watching Oprah, she said. “She was talking about following your passion. I thought: what is my passion? Animals — I love working with animals. One of the girls who used to work with me had a pet-sitting business, and moved back to Kentucky. She turned her clients over to me, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
It was just one of hundreds of decisions she’s made that got her to this point.
“I have a very peaceful life. But,” she said, “it doesn’t happen by accident. You
have to make the choices.”
If you are interested in volunteering with the Rising Star Rottweiler Organization to foster a Rottie, call: 439-6351, or visit www.rsrr.org.