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Jodi Polaha Jones wears many hats in life

Robert Houk • Feb 9, 2020 at 10:00 AM

Jodi Polaha Jones says she’s known by several different names.

She is Dr. Polaha at work, where she is a psychologist who researches the best way to get mental health services to the most people.

She is Jodi Jones in the community, where she is serving her first term on the Washington County Commission.

And at home, she’s "Mom" to her sons and "Pippet" to her husband, who she says “is always planning some kind of new family adventure.”

Jones, an associate professor of psychology at East Tennessee State University, will have her story featured in the new original play, “Life Lines.” The play, which runs Feb. 28 to March 8 at the McKinney Center in Jonesborough, features stories of real people — past and present — from across the Northeast Tennessee.

The production includes Jones’ experiences as a long distance swimmer, as well as being a county commissioner.

Jones’ mother, Betty Ann Polaha — who is a noted local storyteller — is also an actor in this production. Although she is not in her daughter’s scene, Polaha plays the role of Ella Mae Wiggins, a resident of Old Butler, which was flooded to create Lake Watauga.

It is there that the stories intersect with Jones’ accomplishment of swimming across the lake that now covers the home of Butler residents, who are depicted in the play. Jones crossed the 12.5-mile length of Lake Watauga in eight and a half hours.

“Life Lines” was written by Jules Corriere, and is taken from oral histories that were gathered in 2019. It is the third in a series of community plays from Jonesborough’s StoryTown project.

Fast Facts

Dog or cat: “Dog!”

Favorite book: “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” by Annie Dillard

Ideal getaway: “My bicycle and my life partner, Steve Jones.”

WHAT IS YOU REACTION TO YOUR STORY BEING INCLUDED IN “LIFE LINES”?

I’m honored! This region has such a huge storytelling tradition, and so many talented tellers, I think many of us have been impressed by what stories can do. I have been intrigued, empowered, and humbled by others’ stories. I would love to think my story would affect someone like that.

Also, I have so much respect for what Jules is doing by connecting the residents of our community through stories. I’m looking forward to meeting the woman who is playing “me!” This is a time in our country when we really need to experience more connection with one another’s human side. I think its genius to create community in this way.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU THAT YOUR MOTHER IS A MEMBER OF THE PLAY’S CAST?

It means I am going to be sitting in the audience feeling super nervous for her. She will probably feel some kind of karma reading that. Heaven knows she was nervous on my behalf plenty of times.

My mom was always artsy, but mostly with textiles. Then, at age 70, she went back to school (ETSU) and got her storytelling certificate. Now, she is the teller-in-residence at Ballad, a standardized patient at Quillen, and a regular winner at the JRH Story Slam. This is her first play; I could not be more proud of her.

ARE THERE LESSONS TO BE LEARNED FROM SWIMMING, AND HOW HAVE YOU APPLIED THEM TO YOUR PROFESSIONAL AND POLITICAL LIFE?

I have been swimming routinely for 30 years and it has saved me thousands of times.

The biggest lesson, and it applies to everything, is: get in the water. Maybe I only got three hours of sleep. Maybe I have a big meeting soon. Maybe it’s cold. Maybe my back hurts. Maybe (often) I am alone.

Get in. There are no fads or tricks or gimmicks. There is not a lot of fancy gear, equipment, music, or people. Getting in is a small act of commitment made privately in some empty room at 6 a.m. But doing it over and over creates something big. Just get in.

WHERE DO YOU FIND THE ENERGY TO DO ALL THAT YOU DO?

Please come ask me that when I am sitting in the grocery store parking lot, scrolling aimlessly on my phone, too tired to run in for milk and eggs.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE SOMEONE WHO IS CONSIDERING RUNNING FOR PUBLIC OFFICE?

Know your core values for living. What would you want people to say about you at your retirement party or funeral? Not about your accomplishments per se, but more about what you stood for. Then, learn how to channel your values in decisions and actions big and small.

Navigating your values in public office is tricky. There is pressure to act in a way that conforms to others’ expectations or to the existing culture. There are also many shiny things that seem important but aren’t, really. You have to know yourself.

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