Jean Ellis Thigpen, 98, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, passed away at her home on Friday, May 17, 2019, surrounded by her family.
Jean was born in Spring Garden, Alabama, on February 28, 1921. She was the daughter of the late Tevis Baker Ellis and William Hayden Ellis, Sr.
Jean and her four siblings grew up on a large farm in Cherokee County, Alabama. After Jean attended a rural, one-room school house for a year, her parents decided they wanted to secure the best education possible for all their children. So, for the next several years, her mother and all five children moved into town during the week, so they could attend the local public schools. After graduating from Cherokee County High School in 1939, Jean went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in Home Economics from the University of Montevallo, in Montevallo, Alabama, in 1943. While attending college, Jean met her future husband, Barton, at a Baptist Student Union retreat.
Following her college graduation, Jean worked for four years as a registered dietician at Auburn University. Initially, she managed the dining hall for the U.S. Navy’s Training School based at Auburn, and later directed the student dining services for the university. While Jean was working at Auburn, her sweet Barton was working to earn his electrical engineering degree and also served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, which later became the U.S. Air Force.
On May 26, 1946, Jean married the love of her life, Barton F. Thigpen. After a brief honeymoon trip, they moved to Louisville, Kentucky, so Barton could attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to earn his Masters of Divinity. Jean was employed as a registered dietician for the Seminary’s dining services. That’s where she learned that Baptist ministers loved to eat! While at the Seminary, Jean and Barton spent their summers working at a boys’ church camp in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. They had many wonderful memories of their summers spent along the coast of Maine.
While at Southern Seminary, Jean and Barton had their first child, Ellis. Following soon thereafter came the birth of Rebecca, in Troy, Al., where Barton served as assistant superintendent for Alabama Baptist Children’s Home from 1950 – 1954. The growing family moved to Birmingham, Al., where they lived from 1954-1963, and this is where Melodie and Brian were born. Jean was fully committed to raising their four children, and Barton began his career as an electrical engineer. Promotional opportunities for Barton took the family to Centralia, Mo., from 1963– 1970, where Jean began her career teaching home economics to eighth-grade girls. The family lived on a five-acre farm that was pure joy for Jean and Barton as they planted fruit trees, grew a big garden and raised horses, chickens, turkeys, geese, and honeybees. For the children, let’s just say it was all a “learning experience.”
In 1970, the family moved to Chattanooga, where Barton worked for Tennessee Valley Authority and Jean continued her career teaching home economics and science at Tyner Junior High. She taught for 15 years before retiring in 1985. During Barton’s tenure with TVA, he took a job that involved moving to a small town in Switzerland for two years. Jean learned to navigate daily living and international travel without knowing the language. She was grateful for the kindness of strangers, and that so many Europeans spoke English.
Jean was a very involved member of Brainerd Baptist Church for 49 years, teaching in the children’s Sunday School department for 30 years, and impacting the lives of hundreds of children, and parents, over the decades. She proudly served as the chairwoman of the Bereavement Committee for years, and also led the Food Services Committee. She was an active member of the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU), the home-bound ministry and many other organizations over the years. If the doors of Brainerd Baptist were open, Jean and Barton were usually there!
Jean’s passion for flowers was only surpassed by the joy she received from sharing flowers with her friends, and often providing flowers for weddings, teas, and banquets. She was an active horticulturist, with memberships in the Orchid Society, the Rose Society and the Dahlia Society of Chattanooga.
If you knew Jean, you knew she was a fabulous cook! She is the last of a generation of cooks who made everything from scratch. Rarely would someone turn down an invitation to eat a meal at her home. Vegetables were fresh from her garden or fresh-frozen by her tireless hands. It was years before her children realized that some people ate green beans or corn that came from a can. As a registered dietician and home economics teacher, it was second nature for her to serve meals that were both nutritious and color-balanced. She continued her love of food and teaching through many years of membership in the Home Economics Club of Chattanooga, now known as Family & Consumer Science Club.
In addition to her parents, Jean was preceded in death by her loving husband of 54 years, Barton F. Thigpen; her sister, Margaret E. Borders; and her brothers William Hayden Ellis, Jr., and John Harold Ellis.
While Jean dearly loved her church family, especially her Sunday school children, her school students, and her many friends and extended family, Jean’s proudest accomplishment in life was raising her four children. Now Jean will live on in the lives of her children: Ellis B. Thigpen of Kansas City, Mo., Rebecca Lavin (Les Murphy) of Tampa, Fl., Melodie Thigpen (Paulette Moncol) of Richmond, Va., and Brian Thigpen (Ed Curry) of Atlanta, Georgia. She is also survived by her grandson, Alex Lavin (Maureen), and great granddaughter, Alexis Lavin, of Tampa, Fl., and her sister, Aline McConkey, of Clinton, Tn.
When Jean was asked about her secret to a rich life, her answer was fairly simple: “Practice a strong faith, care deeply about others, and share often.”
The family would like to thank her faithful, loving caregivers Mae Russell and Nancy Romero. Kim Sweeton, Jean’s Hospice nurse, was a godsend, as she provided skilled, compassionate care to Jean and her family.
Funeral services will be held on Tuesday, May 21, at 1 p.m. at Brainerd Baptist Church with Reverend Eric Ellis and Reverend Steve Rowland officiating. Interment will be in National Cemetery.
The family will receive friends for visitation on Monday, May 20, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the East Chapel of the Chattanooga Funeral Home.
Serving as active pallbearers will be: Alex Lavin, Kim Salmons, Scott Stokes, Ed Curry, David Hawkins, and Trevor Harrison.
Honorary pallbearers are Howard Gentry, Jet Thigpen, Randy Wooten, Roy Cobble, Randy Rogers, Glen Fleming, Mack Lehigh, Mike Bridges, Lee Humphries, Ed Ryon, Rose Marie and A.B. Coleman, Gloria Maples and Jean’s Sunday School Class.
Memorial contributions may be made to the children’s program or missions programs of Brainerd Baptist Church, or to Hospice of Chattanooga.
Arrangements are under the care of Chattanooga Funeral Home Crematory and Florist East Chapel, 404 South Moore Road, East Ridge, Tn. 37412.
Please share your thoughts and memories at www.ChattanoogaEastChapel.com.