By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
On May 15, three members of a dynamic foursome met to celebrate turning 90 this year.
Jean Dunlap Preston, Lena Wells Crouch, Julia Gardner Wickwire and Jean Underwood Kloess grew up in the same neighborhood, nearly all on the same street in East Lake.
The group lost their friend Jean Underwood several years ago, and Julia suffers from advancing dementia.
Their combined story began in the early 1930s, when Jean Preston, who now lives at Town Village in Vestavia Hills, moved into town. It’s a story of mischief, love, loss and, above all, the persevering love they have for each other.
Jean Preston’s first friend upon arriving in East Lake as a toddler was Julia, who lived right next door.
“My first remembrance was the day we moved in,” Jean said. Her mother had hired a sitter who had Jean outside on the porch when along came a toddler who had a bright blonde bowl cut and was ringing a cow bell.
As the blonde neighbor rang that cowbell, Jean said their eyes met, and from then on they were friends. The same can be said about her first encounters with Lena and Jean Underwood.
All of the girls lived in the same block and were within six months of each others’ ages.
According to an account written by Julia in 2008, their East Lake neighborhood had everything they needed within walking distance, and it was rare for people to move in or out.
There was their church, Ruhama Baptist; their elementary school, Barrett School; as well as two grocery stores, a drug store, a movie theater, a department store and any other shop you could need. In addition, it was at that time home to Howard College, now Samford University, where three of the women attended college.
“There were children and girls and boys all around, but the four of us just seemed to gel together,” Jean said.
Throughout their elementary school days, the girls went to church together, became Brownie Scouts together and were hardly separated.
What one did, all did, according to Julia.
When the group arrived at Sunday School one day and were told they would be split into groups of two in two different classes, it just wouldn’t do.
“We got up and walked down the hall,” Jean said. When she told her mother this story years later, Jean’s mother simply looked aghast and said, “Jean, you didn’t.”
Luckily, the department head who tried to split them followed them down the hall and allowed them to be in the same class. Why they were being split up remains a mystery.
“I’m sure we were misbehaving,” Jean said. “Four can think of a whole lot more to do than one.”
And they thought of much risky behavior to brighten their days together. They would ride their bikes to Roebuck to a property that Julia’s father owned and would be gone for hours. They would also walk through the sewers in East Lake.
As an adult, Jean couldn’t believe they had done that. What if a big rain had come through and washed them through the pipes, she now wonders.
The girls would play in the empty Ruhama Church until the handyman, John, would find them and politely shoo them away.
When the church administration fired John, the girls took on a light political demonstration – traipsing up and down the lawn beneath the open windows of the church conference room during a meeting shouting “Don’t fire John.”
“Well, they fired John,” Jean laughed.
Lena’s adoptive parents had a family farm that made for a favorite retreat in the summer.
Jean recalls more fun spent at that farm on the Cahaba River than even in the neighborhood.
“(Lena’s father) was a sportsman,” Jean said. “He taught us how to shoot a rifle … and he took us frog gigging at night.”
When the weather was warm, the girls would paddle up the river in a rowboat.
“We would get in that little rowboat, go as far up the Cahaba as we could,” Jean said. “Then we had planks and we would lay down on them to take a sun bath and drift down.
On Christmases, Julia recalled, the four girls always got the same gifts.
“One year it was all skates, next year our bikes, next our desks, next our record players, etc. Santa didn’t dare not bring us the same thing,” she wrote.
On Halloween, there was no treating, but there were plenty of tricks.
Jean said they would go around the neighborhood soaping people’s windows or letting the air out of tires.
“If boys were with us, we would take the porch furniture and put it up on the top of the house,” she said.
Once the girls started getting older and entered Woodlawn High School, many of the memories shifted to dating. Still, they were all together in their neighborhood.
While Jean Underwood attended Montevallo Girls College on a scholarship, Jean, Lena and Julia attended Howard College and became members of the Phi Mu sorority.
According to Jean, their Spanish teacher would refer to them as “los tres mariposas” or “the three butterflies.”
While life drew the women to different sides of the country and even globe, Jean said they always put in the effort to remain connected.
During her first marriage, Jean lived in California for a time during the Korean War.
Julia married a Navy man and lived all over the country, even spending time in the Philippines. Still, she would always take time to write a letter to her friends, whether she was weaving tales about their encounters with the Filipino people or just something short and simple.
“Getting married and having children, I believe that is the biggest disruption,” Jean said. “Your time is consumed.”
After five years of marriage and three children, Jean got divorced and entered the workforce. Lena was a stay-at-home mother. Julia was a military wife. Jean Underwood went back to work after her second child.
Jean Underwood even helped Jean get a higher-paying job at U.S. Pipe after her divorce.
Over the years, the women would get together, whether for a class reunion or a child’s wedding.
“Though I didn’t have a husband and maybe didn’t have a date, I was never left out,” Jean said. “I was the seventh wheel for quite a long time.
“We were very fortunate when I married again that all of our husbands understood this friendship.”
They have all been there to support each other, even when apart.
Nowadays, Jean tries to support Julia in any ways she can, and she has found that what remains the longest might just be those childhood memories made decades ago.
Julia’s children have told Jean that whenever they talk about the East Lake days, it brings their mother’s mind back.
“I decided that as long as Julia knew who I was, I was going to continue to call her,” Jean said. She’s still calling.
When Lena, Julia and Jean gathered in May, Jean noted that it was in some ways difficult to see the toll dimentia has taken.
“(Julia) was much more feeble, when before she was the strong one of the group,” she said.
Yet when she saw the nature that surrounded the lake house and began listening to stories of her childhood, Jean watched Julia light up and even quietly provide her own commentary.