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Family, Friends Mourn Lightburn's Death

July 25, 2002

Jeannine Lightburn only had 48 years on the earth, but she made the most of them. She left an indelible mark on the minds and hearts of those who knew and loved her.

"She was unbelievable — a Renaissance woman," said longtime friend Beedee Soskin of Lilburn, Ga. "She did it all — and the world is not quite as bright because she's gone."

Lightburn, 48, of Virginia Run, died of heart failure, July 8, at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. She'd received a liver transplant, some 10 days earlier; and, although the operation was successful, her body was just too weak to carry on.

"It was a real shock to everybody — especially after the transplant," said her husband of 25 years, Bob, 50. "Jeannine was my best friend, in addition to being my wife. We did a lot of things together, but we thought we'd have a lot more time together."

Born in Greensburg, Pa., she received a bachelor's degree in communications from Clarion College in 1976 and a master's in communications from the University of Pittsburgh in 1977. She was an adjunct communications professor at GMU and NOVA, and she also wrote youth-oriented homilies for priests; her works were published in "Celebration," a national Catholic worship guide.

The Lightburns have four children, David, 23, a financial analyst in Memphis; Jessica, 21, a senior at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.; Ellie, 19, a sophomore at Elon College in Burlington, N.C.; and Cate, 12, a rising seventh-grader at Stone Middle School.

Jeannine and Bob met in 1970 when they were both involved in public speaking in their Western Pennsylvania high schools. "We qualified to go to national finals in Florida, and we met there," he said. He knew she was something special, the first time he saw her; after dating off and on, they married in November 1976.

Bob's a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers in Tysons Corner, and his job caused their family to move from Pittsburgh to Memphis, to Atlanta twice and finally to Virginia. "She was always the one who had to find the house, organize everything and establish social relationships for the family, so she made very strong friendships," he said.

Describing Jeannine as "an outstanding public speaker" and someone confident, relaxed and easy-going in her demeanor, he said she was "the type of person who put people at ease — someone you could talk to. She taught public speaking and group communications, and her students knew she was concerned about them."

The two of them made a point to go out, one night each weekend. They also enjoyed taking Caribbean cruises with the whole family, and Jeannine liked collecting art. She was also closely involved with the children's activities. Said her husband: "She was the ultimate mother — room mother at Virginia Run Elementary and a team mom in soccer or basketball."

Friend and neighbor, Beth Cleveland, said her daughter Megan and Cate were friends, too, and Megan loved visiting the Lightburns. "Jeannine was good at entertaining, telling stories and opening up her home to others," said Cleveland. "She had a beautiful smile, and she was always encouraging people and putting them before herself."

She and Jeannine enjoyed chatting on the phone and at their children's games. "We loved her company, and our family feels a very deep loss," she said. "I just can't believe we're not going to have her around, anymore. We all thought she was going to make it. We were enriched by her presence and, not only am I going to miss her, but my heart breaks for their family and for their children because they don't have their mother, anymore."

Also in mourning are Jeannine's parents, Frank and Pattie Jackson of Ligonier, Pa., east of Pittsburgh. "She was and is an inspiration — a heroine in every sense of the word," said her mother. "She was valiant in the face of a destructive disease, and beautiful, inside and out. She was loved by everyone who was lucky enough to know her."

Touched by the telethons she saw on TV, as a child Jeannine organized the neighborhood children and put on backyard carnivals to raise money for muscular dystrophy, too. She also organized plays and shows with her playmates. "And she was state forensics champ, twice, in college," added her father. "We were very proud of her."

"We have wonderful memories of her," said Jeannine's mother. She said her daughter was a fun-loving person who made friends easily and had lots of them: "She had friends from all over at her funeral."

Jeannine had a rare form of liver disease that damages the bile ducts and ultimately destroys the liver. (Chicago Bears running back Walter Peyton died of the same thing). Her health worsened in the spring, yet she continued teaching until the beginning of May. The end of June, she received a transplant.

"But she was so weak by the time she got the liver that she got serious infections that were resistant to medication," said her husband. "Her liver was functioning, but her heart stopped."

Said her mother: "We were so elated when the operation was over — we thought she was on the path back, but it wasn't to be. I guess the Lord needed her more than we do. Her dad and I are just grateful for the time we had with her; she brought us many moments of joy."

Her sister, Gayle Jackson, also of Virginia Run, said that, as the oldest of four children, Jeannine was "the leader, the role model — the one who paved the way for us." Ever the organizer, even as an adult, she said, Jeannine planned events such as murder-mystery parties and catered dinners with creative themes.

"She was always thinking of ways to bring people together," said Jackson. "Even the day before she went into the hospital, Jeannine was planning a birthday party for her husband."

Friend Beedee Soskin in Georgia called her bright, articulate and "something special." Jeannine started the Life Teen program at their parish, bringing teens to Mass, and they both went on a mission trip to Orlando, Fla., where they repaired homes for the elderly.

"She was an amazing woman," said Soskin. "She could do physical labor, cook, decorate a house; she put together a book club in Atlanta, and we stayed together 4 1/2 years. People here are devastated — we were all praying for her."

Friend Sherron Martinez, of Stone Mountain, Ga., called Jeannine "the center of everything — [the one who] made activities happen. She just had a spirit about her that was hard to emulate. We used to go to the gym together and then to a restaurant for burgers and fries. She was full of life and full of fun. She was a really good person, and it's terrible that this happened."

Her funeral was July 12 at St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church in Fairfax Station. Memorial contributions may be made to the Johns Hopkins Transplant Program.