Jean Smith Gaertner passed away peacefully on May 9, 2020 at Addolorata Villa in Wheeling, Ill., where she had resided for the past four years. She was born in Ottumwa, Iowa, on November 5, 1935, to A.J. and Cecilia Daniel Smith, and was raised in Harper, Iowa, alongside her sister Joan who was just a year older. The two were raised much like twins with matching clothes, shoes, dolls, as well as a treasured group of friends from St. Elizabeth School. They did nearly everything together, were each other’s best friend and biggest support, and shared an incredible bond throughout their lives. As a young teenager, Jean rode her bicycle around the tiny town of Harper, asking residents about local happenings or visitors, then wrote up news articles to contribute as a “stringer” to the Daily Courier, a newspaper published in nearby Ottumwa. The editors were so impressed by her talent and gumption that after graduating from St. Elizabeth School they hired Jean as a reporter. She was trusted with numerous high-profile assignments — among them interviewing President Harry Truman when his train made a stop in Ottumwa.
Jean’s father had been a foreman for Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America, which opened the door to an unconventional route for Jean to further pursue her dreams during an era in which most women didn’t have business careers. The company was headquartered in Chicago and Jean was hired as an assistant for its corporate magazine Between the Lines. Her boss saw her tremendous potential and work ethic and began trusting her with more responsibilities. Soon, she was named editor of the magazine and built a high profile for the company’s communications efforts. Jean realized a college education could further broaden her career, and she took years of night and weekend courses to earn a Bachelor’s Degree at DePaul University and a MBA from the University of Michigan.
Jean attracted the attention of another Natural Gas corporate staff member, Fritz Gaertner, a Fulbright Scholar who had emigrated to the U.S. from Vienna, Austria to pursue his masters’ degree. They married on August 23, 1969 and their daughter, Senta Jean, was born on June 19, 1970. Jean treasured being a mother, and did an incredible job of balancing her career and home life. Together Jean and Fritz tried exceptionally hard to ensure every opportunity possible to share quality family time. They loved to travel together - especially to Fritz’ native Austria to visit family, to explore new places and to spend time in nature. Senta was rooted in a wonderful combination of small town Midwestern values and an appreciation of the broader world.
Jean’s perseverance and loyalty continued to be recognized by executives at Natural Gas. Her tremendous value was rewarded with positions of increasing authority at People’s Energy, Mid-Con and its parent Occidental Petroleum, ultimately serving as Director of Corporate Communications. Her work in all mediums of communications — including video — was extraordinary and honored with numerous awards. She was a consummate professional who was invited to join Executive Women International and became the group’s President.
After taking an early retirement, Jean discovered a passionate interest in city government. She began by doing some volunteer work for voter registration and other programs, and again her talent was easily recognizable. She began her second career working at the City of Chicago’s Department of Human Services and was eventually promoted to the position of Assistant Commissioner by Mayor Richard M. Daley. Jean truly flourished in this final chapter of her professional life. She loved her staff and the residents she served.
Jean had a very special relationship with her sister Joan. The sisters had uniquely different talents, personalities and capabilities that were an ideal complement for each other. They had been raised with an inherent loyalty and love for each other, which was so evident to everyone who met them. Jean and Joan were both widowed within a short time, and spent their final years in apartments just 87 steps apart in Addolorata Villa so they could spend time together daily.
Joan’s daughter Mary Jo was absolutely in awe of her Godmother and “Aunt Jeanna.” In junior high school, Mary Jo was given an assignment to do a project about the person she most admired. She put together a magazine called “Jean” that told the story of her remarkable aunt. Throughout her life, Mary Jo came to Aunt Jeanna as a trusted confidante for guidance and inspiration; Jean was the role model for Mary Jo’s career as a writer.
Jean also treasured her newest title of “Ama” to Senta’s three children who she completely adored. They, in return, adored her. She was their biggest supporter, always asking about their tennis and soccer tournaments, school plays and chorus concerts. As her mobility lessened, the children were so patient and kind, always showing her compassion and gentle love. She thoroughly enjoyed watching them grow. Jean was incredibly proud of Senta and her husband Andy, and the family and life they built together.
Jean was a woman of great faith, courage and endless inner strength. She endured a series of severe health issues over the past 20 years and remarkably never asked “why me” or felt sorry for herself. Even in her final months as her body grew weaker, Jean woke with a smile and a soft greeting for her caregivers, was delighted to hear from loved ones, and expressed gratitude to everyone.
Jean is survived by her daughter Senta (Andy) Plunkett and grandchildren Eleanor, Matthew and Brennan of Wilmette, Ill.; niece Mary Jo Martin of Scottsdale, Ariz.; and cherished cousins and extended family. She was preceded in death by her parents A.J. and Cecilia Smith; sisters Mary Therese (infant) and Joan (Richard) Martin; and husband Fritz Gaertner.
Funeral services will be held at St. Elizabeth Cemetery in Harper on May 15.
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