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Jean Wallis (1933-2024): A treasure trove of Highland County history

The Highland County Press - Staff Photo - Create Article
Bob Brown took this photo of me and Jean in 2018. Jean Wallis and Steve Roush are pictured in front of the Mother Thompson House portrait that hangs in the Scott House in this 2018 photo. (Photo by Bob Brown.)  

By Steve Roush
HCP columnist

Ladies and gentlemen, Jean Wallis probably forgot more about Highland County history than most will ever know.

Actually, she probably never forgot, and if she did, she probably recalled what she had forgotten later in the day.

I was saddened to hear the news that Jean passed away Thursday, May 9, 2024 at the age of 90. She’ll be missed by many.

She was a wealth of knowledge, a treasure trove of Highland County history, the preeminent historian of Highland County, the Highland County Guidepost. We could go on and on with the accolades, and perhaps we should. She deserves it.

I’m in my second decade of penning offerings on local history, and Jean was there to help me along the way. If I got something wrong, my phone would ring and when I’d answer, I’d hear, “Steve, this is Jean…” and she’d point out the error of my ways. But if I did something she liked or enjoyed reading, she’d give me a call about that, too.

Many times, I’d be writing on a topic, and she’d contact me, and we’d meet up and discuss the subject. Often, she’d make copies of articles she had written, her Highland Guideposts, or she’d give me a folder of information that was always most useful. Sometimes, we’d meet at the Highland House Museum. She had a key, but I remember a time she couldn’t disarm the security alarm. Rest assured, we weren’t arrested. 

After all, she was the one and only Jean Wallis.

When I joined the Highland County Historical Society Board of Trustees, serving as vice chairman, and later chairman, Jean was still attending the meetings in the early years, and I remember her telling me she was glad I was getting more involved with the HCHS. 

The late Bob Hodson told me something similar, and Bob was also a big help with what I’d write on local history. The fact that they told me that meant a lot to me. They mean a lot to me. If there was a Mount Rushmore of the Highland County Historical Society, they’d be on that mountain. Now serving as president of the HCHS, I see their footprints all around, even though they are no longer with us.

“During my tenure on the board of trustees for the Highland County Historical Society it was a great pleasure to see Jean Wallis recognized as Historian Emeritus for the Society,” said Denny Kirk, a member of the Highland County Historical Society and former Board of Trustee Chair. 

“Jean’s knowledge of Highland County History was unmatched. Jean's contribution to the Society library, many different exhibits and events, and to those stopping by to learn about local history, was a major advantage to the Society over the years. In effect, Jean was the Highland County Historical Society and will forever be remembered for her many, many contributions. Jean will be truly missed.”

John Levo currently serves as chairman of the Highland County Historical Society Board of Trustees, and he also has served as vice chairman and treasurer.

“Bob Hodson introduced me to ‘Highland County and Hillsboro Methodist Church Historian’ Jean Wallis in about 1967,” Levo said. “Since then, I have never met another person with such a memory for dates, locations, events, stories and the people who made up the history of our county and area. As the chairman of the Highland County Historical Society, I can only imagine the Heavenly discussions between Jean and the others like Daniel Scott, Violet Morgan, Jane McBride and Elsie Ayres, who chronicled the history of Highland County.”

That would be quite the discussion, indeed.

Justin Harsha, who serves as mayor of Hillsboro and also served on the Highland County Historical Society Board of Trustees, said he’ll miss Jean and her knowledge of Highland County.

“I’m very sad to hear that Jean Wallis is no longer with us,” Harsha told me Thursday night. “She was a wealth of knowledge for anyone looking for a bit of Highland County history. It was always a pleasure to have a conversation with her and many will deeply miss her.”

Max Petzold, a member of the Highland County Historical Society and quite the local historian himself, recalls Jean with fondness.

“Jean was a great Highland County Historian that was always only a phone call away if you needed an answer on history,” Petzold said. “She also knew a lot of Highland County genealogy. Her knowledge and expertise were second to none and her past Highland County Guidepost articles contain a depth knowledge on so many local topics. Her home was a veritable museum on its own. Her guidance will be greatly missed as she was such an important part of the Highland County Historical Society.”

In 2020, upon learning that Jean was leaving Highland County to live with her daughter’s family in Loveland, historian Christopher S. Duckworth, who spent three decades at the Ohio Historical Society, wrote a letter lauding Jean as “the most steady and knowledgeable voice of Highland County’s past. She wanted only to uncover the truth and to tell it – and that is the hallmark of a true historian.”

"Highland Countians, I fear, have limited knowledge of how lucky they have been to have Jean Wallis help preserve its past and guide its future through the Highland County Historical Society and the Southern Ohio Genealogical Society,” Duckworth said. “I have watched many local Ohio historical societies through the years with the Ohio Historical Society, and Jean represents what the very best — God bless her."

According to her obituary, Jean’s passion for local history began at an early age, and beginning in 1982 her weekly history lessons became a staple of the local newspaper, appearing under the simple artwork designed by her husband of an old signpost featuring the words, “Highland Guidepost.” 

She wrote articles continuously for 28 years. A few years after discontinuing the articles, Jean agreed to update and re-submit a number of them, gaining a new generation of fans, many of whom were now discovering her published time capsules on the internet.

Jean was ably assisted through the years by her husband, Lester, who passed away in 2012. As a team, Jean and Lester did as much or more than anyone in Highland County history to collect, preserve and describe in colorful prose the people, places, events and artifacts that contributed to the region’s growth, success and charm. 

Throughout the years, Jean was the go-to source for every organization and local media outlet when it came to settling questions of local history. If she could not immediately resolve a question, she would painstakingly research the topic until a satisfactory answer could be found.

In October 2020, Jean relocated to Loveland to live with her daughter and son-in-law, Elizabeth and Andy Biggs, who survive. Her daughter said Jean “really liked Loveland and how close everything was, including restaurants and shopping.” Jean enjoyed traveling with Beth and Andy, and hoped to visit Moab, Utah, this year. She loved recalling trips to the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, crossing the Continental Divide, Harpers Ferry, Antietam and Gettysburg.

“She also enjoyed going to Casper, Wyoming, to the museum where she got to finally meet Rick, curator of the museum, whom she had talked to numerous times over the years,” said Beth.

Jean Wallis was born Nov. 8, 1933, in Hillsboro, the daughter of Loren and Marguerite (Suiter) Gall.

Jean was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution for 54 years, serving as Regent for two terms. She was a member of the Highland County Historical Society, serving as secretary for 14 years, as well as president, vice-president, assistant director, board member, and finally Historian Emeritus. She was inducted into the Highland County Historical Society Hall of Fame, and the society’s library was dedicated in honor of Jean and Lester, who were instrumental in the creation of the Pictorial History of Highland County.

Jean served as president of the Southern Ohio Genealogical Society and chairperson of First Families, also serving as historian and board member. She was a member and historian for the Hillsboro Global Methodist Church. Jean was a member of the Hillsboro Women’s Club, and a troop leader for Girls Scouts. She also worked with Leadership Highland.

Jean received numerous honors and recognitions. She was inducted into the AAUW Highland County Women’s Hall of Fame. She was Hillsboro Citizen of the Month in September 1996. The Highland County Commissioners proclaimed Dec. 9, 2018 “Jean Wallis Day” for her lifetime of service.

Per Jean’s wishes, there will be no services. Cremation services will be conducted by Turner & Son Funeral Home in Hillsboro.
Memorials may to the Highland County Historical Society, 151 E. Main St. Hillsboro, Ohio 45133.

Godspeed, Jean Wallis. Many thanks for all the invaluable history you imparted on us.

Steve Roush is president of the Highland County Historical Society and served as chairman and vice chairman on the HCHS Board of Trustees for two terms, a board member of the Highland District Hospital Foundation, a vice president of an international media company and a columnist and contributing writer for The Highland County Press. He can be reached by email at roush_steve@msn.com.

Comment

Chad E. McConnaughey (not verified)

13 May 2024

What a great article about an even greater lady. I thoroughly enjoyed having many conversations with Jean in the Recorder's Office. The knowledge that she was able to retain was just amazing. She will be missed for sure.

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