One Woman’s Century

I think of better fortune, the luck of the draw, and where you happen to be born.”
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“I like to think the world is getting better,” she confides, “but I’m just not convinced of that when it comes to the United States.” Much of her disappointment comes from the sorry state of our political discourse. With a job offer in Chicago, he encouraged her to apply to grad school, “all but filling in my application.” She was accepted at the University of Chicago. About to finish his master’s degree in economics, he was as serious about Jayne as he was about making money. Keen on Scrabble and skipping supper for dessert, she takes pleasure in the small things. Only after completing them with courage and competence did they win the men’s respect. It was also a time of vast improvements. They bought a big, beautiful house on Upper Harlem Boulevard and joined the country club. To the world’s 1.8 billion people, the US had 106 million. As if the Almighty were hanging by the thread of something muttered underneath our breath! On top of pursuing 18 credits and landing a job at the math library, she also earned her pilot’s license, no mean feat when flight lessons were $10 an hour, half her weekly GI allotment. “He was a hunk and physically impressive,” she wrote of the boy who visited her every leave he got, “but fairly limited in the intellectual sphere.”
More enduring were her sentiments for Francis “Frenchie” Beauregard, a little Catholic redhead from New York. “But I used to think that birth control made retroactive might be better.”
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“I’m considered something of a miracle around here,” Jayne says of a brief hospital stay in 2019, “for still being able to think, move around, and make decisions. Though a proud American and lifelong Presbyterian, Jayne has views on nationalism, religion, and politics that are anything but conventional. The family also brought Jayne along to Granger meetings, where she met neighbors and local lads. After all, they hadn’t invested a dime in the stock market, nor had anyone else they knew. Luckily, she chanced upon a spiffy Navy recruiting poster. “I will say this,” one wrote to her. One story in particular highlights the awkward time they had. In addition to becoming president of the Rockford Symphony Orchestra, Jayne took up sculpting, wood carving, painting, and playing the violin. Things got even spicier down in Atlanta, where she was sent for special training once she’d been accepted as an air traffic controller. A freelance writer and editor, he has been based in Istanbul since 2016. One night a superior tried to get fresh with her. Bass, gave them Mandarin-language Bibles to hide in their luggage. Of the Depression, Jayne’s memories are not overly dark. But being single is a lot easier than being married.”
Instead, she took to the road. How dare the neighbors speak German when she was on the line! His mother, terribly unhappy, escaped by driving her car into an oncoming train. “It’s been a pleasure working for you,” Jayne said, and quit. Jayne’s parents had a rough and tumble time of it in their first decade together. Bob, less studious, was sent to retake the malaria-ridden Filipino jungles from the Japanese. Christianity, to her, boils down to this:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” Beyond that, she’s not convinced it matters. Though the latter rarely impressed, it was not for lack of trying. His father, a disabled World War I vet, was an itinerant alcoholic who had dragged his sons from farm to farm doing dirty odd jobs. After nearly dying of scarlet fever as an adolescent, she went in three short decades from living among sharecroppers to socializing with astronauts. “Though the JCCs were reserved for men,” she notes, “there was a female auxiliary whose members had the honor of waiting on the men.”
After some troubles conceiving, Jayne finally gave birth to a baby girl in 1953, at the age of 33. Who cares if my meteoric rise had to do with my gender! “Here was this picture of a gorgeous woman directing airplanes in the sky,” she gushes, “flanked by a real hunk taking orders from her. The men on base — which included a young lieutenant from California named Richard Nixon — were not thrilled with the girls’ arrival. In Chicago, Arch enrolled in pharmacology school and soon met a girl at his boardinghouse called Elsie, who was studying to become a beautician. “I always knew I was just practicing,” Jayne says. Europe, however, was in turmoil.   He made for the city the first chance he got. From the moment she took the seat next to him on the bus, he would be hard to shake for the next quarter-century. After the $5 she gave to the family she boarded with and the $10 in bus fare, she could pocket $50 a month. But the more she saw of the kids, the less she saw of her husband. Starting out as director of personnel, Jayne rose to become the first female vice president in the history of the city’s banking sector. Fear and hope in equal measure filled the air. Jayne ran for the school board, a first for a woman in the the city’s history, and won. They say we’re going to build communities on the moon and under the ocean! “I’d point him right in the direction of the washing machine!” she jokes. “How’d you like to come work for us?” “What can you offer” she asked him. This tall, strapping lad from a little town called Monmouth had also served, as a reserve officer in France. Edelmann of Michigan, whom she met one Sunday at church. Yet the big change would come sooner than she could imagine. After the divorce settlement, in which Jayne wound up getting much more than she’d bargained for, she set about looking for a new job. This I cannot accept. Though a staunch Presbyterian, she abhors the exclusivity of Christianity. “It was love at first flight!” she jokes. “If prince charming would have come along,” she concedes, “I might have married him. Told they would “observe Chinese religion,” she was a little perturbed when the “frustrated missionary” leading their expedition, Dr. “I was known and respected on my own merits,” she says, “something terribly important to me. By this time, it was 1972, and women’s groups had been putting pressure on corporations for years. During this trip, she snuck onstage at the Vienna Staatsoper to render her version of Verdi’s “La Donne è Mobile.”
Things took a hairier turn when she ventured into China. Sadly, her students had no interest in “book-learning.” Even attempts to introduce music were met with derision, one parent complaining that she was wasting his children’s time with frivolous pursuits. After going to graduate school on the GI Bill, she became the first woman elected to the school board in Saginaw, Michigan. “All of them were single women,” she gushed, “a fact that everyone took for granted. Back at the Priestley’s, with whom she boarded, things were scarcely better. Now that was adventure, and patriotic, too!” Accepted into the women’s branch of the US Naval Reserve, then known as the WAVES, she shipped off for basic training in New York City. Though poor, they were decent and hardworking people. Jayne ascends the corporate ladder, circa 1975. Though she had never left the country before, she soon ventured abroad on a yearly basis. What’s worse, even Christians can’t go to heaven unless they say, out loud: “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior.” Rubbish! “Sure, I think the 2016 election was probably crooked,” she admits, “but I fear most elections are probably crooked.”
Jayne’s religious views are even spicier than her political opinions. Then the second-largest city in Illinois, Rockford had just seen the opening of an enormous Chrysler assembly plant around the time of their arrival in 1965. “I feel so annoyed when people get to feeling too special about being from the United States,” she confesses. A hint of the feminist Jayne would later become also reared its head. People choose to talk about history as if it were gospel, but it isn’t! A friend from her book club, in fact, was an external consultant for the bank and had been pressuring them to hire a woman in management (“and not too young!”). A terrifically good sport, Frenchie was up for anything. “He was a grand man, and I was lucky to get somebody. “I’d make everyone love each other,” she says without hesitation. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will buoy us unto death.” She winks. Both of them eager to start their “real lives,” Gene convinced Jayne to switch her major from math to education so she could graduate faster. Since several households shared a phone line, communications were somewhat communal. Sure, things were hard: Walgreens cut her father’s pay by 30 percent, and he was always in perpetual terror of losing his job. History is simply what somebody said about something. While putschists vied for power in Berlin, Bolsheviks were pushing the last of the Whites into the Black Sea. And with the $65 a month she now took home, she also got her teeth fixed. After Archibald (“Blazes”) and Bob, she was the youngest of three. Her classmate Betty Friedan, for example, who would go on to launch second wave feminism, went off to Smith after graduating from Peoria High. Though every year is fateful, few have been as momentous as the one in which she entered the world. This he declined: in those days, he feared, you couldn’t make any money in Washington. “He was 35 and ready to settle down. Instead he helped elect his pal Jim Harvey, who later got them tickets to Nixon’s inaugural ball. “I also had to have buckteeth. With both her brothers already in uniform, Jayne was completing the Cowan family trifecta. They were married at the First Presbyterian Church in Peoria on December 26, 1946. “Upbeat and proactive with a good word for everybody. JANUARY 16, 2021

MY GRANDMOTHER, Jayne Pheiffer, turned 100 on December 18. With the country now in need of regulators, Jayne’s father became a state inspector at Peoria’s whiskey distilleries, a passion that seeped into his private life. Though she grudgingly took one, “some nuts had 20 or 25!”
Later, even while traveling across Australia, Canada, Israel, Kenya, Morocco, New Zealand, and Turkey, she also remained busy back home. With an army camp just down the road, “it was an incredibly romantic interlude.” Of the lads that made an impression, the first was Private First-Class Leo H. In addition to its 12 GM factories, it made the ball screws for the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and produced millions of .30 caliber machine guns and M1 carbine rifles, weapons central to the American war efforts in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The ‘real world,’ even from this limited perspective, wasn’t going to go out of its way to accommodate me.”
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Back in Peoria, Jayne got a job at an excellent public school, where she met George Bartlett, a fellow teacher 14 years her senior. “As minor an office as it was,” she learned a great deal about the sausage-making of municipal politics and made several lasting changes. The fact that he taught Sunday School at the Methodist Church was a very large plus in his favor.” Sure, he had a darker side, but his life had not been easy. “Don’t you have daddies or boyfriends who can take care of you?” was one board member’s reply. “When Christians talk about the ‘life to come,’ that doesn’t necessarily mean living up in the clouds; it means what happens to the world below! The big break came after the 21st Amendment did away with Prohibition. Historically, what we do now is of extreme importance, only for those who come after us.”
“If there is an afterlife,” she continues, “I haven’t got a clue what it’s like. Jayne recalls seeing the sunrise over the mountains, “a new experience for us poor unfortunates from Illinois.” The real shock came when they reached New York City, whose skyscrapers, traffic, and crowded streets “made Peoria seem a very insignificant place.” Still, they caught a world premiere featuring Marlene Dietrich and made a pilgrimage to Grant’s Tomb. That January, Prohibition went into effect, the League of Nations was founded, and J. The number-one song on the charts was Al Jolson’s “Swanee,” written by George Gershwin and performed in blackface. A militant if unconscious feminist, she fought for equal pay for women even before joining the Navy during World War II. Mrs. “When he complained about a shirt of his, I realized he was a bit stuffy, and called the whole thing off. As a college graduate, her eldest brother, Arch, had gone to South America on intelligence work. In eighth grade, she caught a bout of scarlet fever so bad she had to be quarantined for half a year. “In Baltimore,” she writes, “there were blocks and blocks of apartment houses with white stone steps in front, and women out scrubbing them. Jayne’s father, Archibald “Blizzard” Cowan, was a pharmacist who ran the local drug store. It was the happiest day of her life. Jayne, however, like her childhood idols, had always wanted to be a teacher. As usual, Jayne settled into her usual spate of activities: volunteering at the Presbyterian Church and the American Association of University Women, taking painting classes at the local college, and preparing to return to teaching after her youngest went off to college. The daughter of German immigrants, she too had grown up in small-town Illinois, a place called Pekin. I count myself happy, privileged, blessed beyond any deserving. On the other hand, she’s an extraordinary woman whose life embodies many of the century’s most meaningful advances. In August, women’s suffrage finally became a reality, barely two weeks before the world’s first radio news program was broadcast from Detroit, launching the age of mass media. On one occasion, she was detailed to help Eleanor Roosevelt out of her car and introduce the First Lady to the squadron. “Not caring for his advances,” she jumped away from him — only to fall down the stairs and break her leg. Next came the Alps, the only place that brought tears to her eyes. “My ambitions were fueled, my self-reliance strengthened. When George proposed, she said yes. Jayne’s father had been one of millions at the turn of the 20th century to abandon the austere joys of farming for a shot at the good life. Her training completed, she served out her time at the US Naval Base at Ottumwa, Iowa, having picked the post closest to home. But when the time came for Frenchie to go to war, they amicably parted ways and never heard from one another again. They say that God loves everybody and to love your neighbor. In addition to distilling his own spirits, he grew grapes for vintage and was an avid arborist, pigeon-raiser, and duck hunter, even carving his own decoys. The couple dove right into civic life, joining the Presbyterian Church and the Junior Chamber of Commerce (JCC). “The Bible was written by people! Gene had gathered his belongings and run off with his secretary. I’d rather be a spinster than spend my life mending George’s shirts!”
As if liberated, she also began organizing at work. Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, was also an old Michigan buddy. It may or may not have happened that way! The family reached its social peak soon after moving to Rockford. ¤
Jayne Pheiffer, née Cowan, was born on December 18, 1920, in Ambia, Indiana, a small outpost on the Lake Erie and Western Railroad. Even the British Empire was showing strains: after the IRA’s Bloody Sunday assassinations in November, the Brits burned down central Cork the week that Jayne was born. With 16 million service members recently decommissioned, there was a major postwar housing shortage. This is what girls were supposed to do.”
It was only when he started bringing around his dirty laundry that she began to have her doubts. I love this world and this life!”
“I don’t expect to make any more history,” she concludes, “but hope to live on in pleasant obscurity.” And then bow out with grace. When the doctors see my age, they expect to see a white-haired old crone. ¤
Born and raised in St. So was Gene Pheiffer, whom she met on the bus one day going back to college from Peoria. I don’t doubt they were inspired by God, but it’s just like history. She had no desire to paste labels on whiskey bottles for the rest of her life. But if you’re Jewish, I won’t love you; if you’re Muslim, I won’t love you; and, unless you’re a Christian, you’ll never get to heaven! Life expectancy was 54. Jayne’s grandparents, Clara Ackerman and Carl Robert, are bottom left and right. More importantly, she was no longer simply “Gene’s wife,” but rather Jayne Pheiffer: Vice President. Things were quieter back in Ambia, a town of 459 souls not far from the family farm in Hoopeston, Illinois. On the face of it, she’s an ordinary woman, a retired teacher in a Midwestern senior living facility winding down her days barely 200 miles from where she began them. A talented pianist, sculptor, and painter, her life has been one long attempt at self-improvement. He even came out to see her in Peoria. They handed over $600 in cash for a brand-new maroon two-seater Ford coupe — the best car she’s ever owned — and attended lots of potluck suppers and card games. “And what are the experts proposing to resolve this? “What do you want?” he replied. Only later did they land a place in Evanston, the same suburb where her parents had first courted 30 years earlier. Constantinople was under British and French occupation, Smyrna under Greek. The same skepticism applies to the afterlife. Tasked with keeping an eye on the family plot in South Dakota, he spent three months alone on the frozen American steppe. “What could you do?” she asks. A booming industrial city, Saginaw had grown immensely during the war. “After seeing a bit of the world, I just don’t believe in superiority anymore. Offers came pouring in — years of volunteering and civic engagement had not gone for naught. They married in 1912. Edgar Hoover kicked off the first Red Scare. When they see a pink-haired old crone, they don’t quite know what to do!”
Jayne at home in Rockford, surrounded by her own handiwork and some family heirlooms (2019)
Though Jayne’s centennial celebration was cancelled because of the pandemic, it’s no big deal. “Gene’s urge to win in business soon became compulsive,” she recalls. ¤
Jayne is no stranger to quarantines. It was also the breakout year of Henry Ford’s Model T, with production more than doubling and the cost of purchase slashed to $395. Her brothers handed over their wages each week from the root-beer stand and paper route. “Take reincarnation. The couple made their way to the Windy City in 1947. Starting out with England and Scotland, she went on to visit Greece and Spain, only just democratized. While amendments and additions are still possibilities, I plan to stop now. But I don’t think I care to live on the bottom of the sea or on the dome of the moon.”
What would she change if given a magic wand? For the wealthier, college and marriage opened certain doors. “Each recollection suggests others. But they never went hungry. But you know how it is when you’re young and feeling imperfect.”
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After the war, Jayne enrolled at the University of Illinois on the GI Bill in the hopes of furthering her Naval career. Priestley figured she had as much a right as anyone to listen in. “We’ll just have to fête my hundred and first,” she says. They finally docked in Peoria, whose prodigious whiskey and tractor production would soon make it the Ur-town of Middle America. Relocating five times in 10 years, they trekked 3,000 miles across the Midwestern steppe: from Indiana to North Dakota and Oklahoma before boomeranging back to Illinois. And one blessing came after the other: less than two years later, she gave birth to Phil, this author’s father. There to replace male air traffic controllers only recently sent off to the Pacific, she and her girls were given the dirtiest and most dangerous tasks. But it also pushed her. Having sufficiently dabbled, she was ready for something serious. At $80 per month, her wage wasn’t terrible. For the first time in history, the average American had actual mobility. Just have an automobile accident and see how things get reported. As you got into the poorer section, the steps were wood instead of stone, but scrubbed by women just the same.”
Ordinary girls in those days had four options in life: to become a secretary, teacher, nurse, or maid. Now I realize it wasn’t that bad. “I have no doubt that Trump deserved impeachment, but there are much better things we could be spending our energy on doing.” She believes you have to pick your fights. The granddaughter of homesteaders, her forebears fled Europe to escape conscription into the Kaiser’s armies. Her father and brothers had to move out of the house, while her mother thought she’d die. After a stint at the YMCA, the newlyweds rented a room from a family on the South Side. Her legs were so weak that she had to wear orthopedic shoes for several years. Without packing a bag, Jayne and her friends would ride up to Chicago and stay at the YMCA for $2 a night. But success was hardly Gene’s alone. A generous woman, her mother, who could make a goulash or pot of spaghetti and meatballs stretch for miles, fed several struggling neighbors each evening. As the tallest in her batch of WAVES, Jayne led her squadron’s weekly marches down Fifth Avenue. Jayne’s mother Elsie, center, is in white. A hard worker who put himself through school and later earned a PhD at the University of Chicago, George and his buddies co-owned an airplane. Priestley, for her part, had two great joys: the peach-canning competition, which she won that year, and eavesdropping on her neighbors. Not only did they visit New York, Washington, and Baltimore, they saw Gettysburg and met “real live hillbillies” in the Appalachians. 1920 was the last year the United States was equal parts urban and rural. “It wasn’t enough that I had flaming red hair!” she jokes. “Those were some high-level duties!”
Jayne joins the Navy, 1943. A month later, the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei renamed itself the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, while the KKK was en route to claiming a quarter of all Indiana men in its ranks. If there is such a thing, I’ve probably already had it and just don’t know it, so I don’t have to worry about that.”
The real fear of this Depression-era Malthusian remains overpopulation. The Schurman family, 1901. “I’ve already had my fair share of champagne.”
“This set of remembrances will never be finished,” she wrote back in 2004. “In those days you handled things yourself.”
Since service members rode the rails for free, all you needed in those days was a uniform. “Half the town was incredibly gung-ho about the prospect, and half thought all hell might break loose,” she jokes. Seven percent of Americans lived in New York City, which overtook London that year as the world’s largest. “All this cramped my style a bit,” she admits 85 years later, “but I went back to school and managed well.”
The highlight of the Depression years may have been the Great Family Trip they all took in 1937. Sharecroppers too poor to buy machinery or hire any help during the harvest, they picked what corn they could by hand — half of which went to the landlord — and left the rest to rot. ¤
Returning from a weekend away, Jayne found an empty house with a note on the table. Abandoned by her husband, she rose to become the first female bank vice president in northern Illinois. I guess he’d looked around, and there I was.” Self-conscious about her buckteeth and unattracted to anyone else at work, Jayne considered herself fortunate. Before long, Gene was offered a promotion at the Savings and Loan, this time as president of the Saginaw branch. They were confident, well dressed, literate, and highly respected by everyone I knew.” When an opening came up at a country school, she set off for Princeville, Illinois, a hardscrabble town of 990 souls. “Though I am a partly trained amateur wrestler, I promise not to take advantage of you.”
“It was my first experience with failure,” Jayne wrote of her time in Princeville. But what was she to do? “All he did was work.”
Before long, he was state president of the JCC, even encouraged by friends to run for Congress. Orphaned when his father left, Gene was raised by a kindly neighbor. And if that never comes, so be it. After retirement, she hit the road, traveling extensively across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Everything, and nothing, seemed possible. “Gene was smart, ambitious, serious about his studies, and, to my eyes, extremely handsome,” Jayne says. If it wasn’t me, it would have only gone to some other woman.”
Though she never remarried, she admits that she dreamed about the prospect at times. Growing up on farms across the Upper Midwest, his hankering for the hoe died forever one winter in the early 1900s. And mainly men. With 30 pupils spread across six grades, the one-room schoolhouse had a furnace that ran on corncobs, coal, and kerosene, with a large crack that sent smoke spewing everywhere. Louis, Evan Pheiffer studied history and politics in New York, London, and Paris. The president of Central National Bank approached her after church one morning. This, with certain omissions, is her story. Her mother, Elsie Schurman Cowan, was a homemaker. Paying her bill as she did, Mrs. He’d left two things behind: the bathrobe she had knitted him that year and the number of the post office box where he could be reached in case of emergency. I have no doubt there were plenty of smart women out there, but what they wrote never got included. But the school board wouldn’t budge on equal pay for women.