From arts to children, a commitment to community

Jean Gaasch was a founder of the Perkins Center for the Arts, a columnist, and longtime teacher.
Jean Gaasch was a founder of the Perkins Center for the Arts, a columnist, and longtime teacher.
Posted: February 18, 2013

Jean Gaasch had traveled the world over, but she believed that in the end, God would not ask her where she had been, only what she had done for the greater good.

If so, he had best make himself comfortable. He'll be there awhile.

Mrs. Gaasch died of pancreatic cancer on Saturday, Feb. 9, at home in Moorestown. In her 82 years, she wrote a thousand local newspaper columns, taught hundreds of third graders, and raised her hand for many a community cause.

But chief among the talking points: She helped craft the future of the arts in South Jersey.

Mrs. Gaasch was a founder of the Perkins Center for the Arts in Moorestown in 1977, and volunteer director in its first eight years. Uncounted exhibits, concerts and ceramics classes, arabesques and toe taps, pastels, oils, and fingerpaintings later, it is a cultural force regionwide.

"She was very good at the daily detail, while maintaining a wonderful vision of what we could be," said Louis Matlack, a Perkins cofounder. He offered the allegory of three men at work on the same task. Asked what they were up to, one replied, "Laying bricks"; the next, "Building a wall"; the next, "Building a cathedral."

"Jean," he said, "did all three."

She and her family had just settled in Moorestown when, in the mid-1970s, she joined community stalwarts Matlack, Sally Harral, and Frank Keenan to save Evergreen Lawn.

Since 1910, the Tudor Revival home stood on the grounds of an early-19th-century ornamental nursery owned by the Perkins family. Bequeathed to the township, the timeworn house was in a bulldozer's sights when the four intervened, had it placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and resurrected it as an arts center.

They painted and scrubbed it, laid down a secondhand dance floor, got an electric kiln and a phonograph, and were good to go.

They were not alone for long in their efforts.

Mrs. Gaasch, with her laser blue eyes, "was a Pied Piper," said her daughter Laura Gaasch. "She had a gift for gathering volunteers. . . . People knew she got things done, and they followed her."

Perkins' second annual report cited her as "the single biggest reason" for the nonprofit's early success. "She was key to keeping it running," said Alan Willoughby, the current director. "She did a huge amount of work, unpaid."

At the same time, Mrs. Gaasch wrote a weekly column, "Interesting Moorestonians," for the Moorestown Chronicle. Her profiles celebrated townsfolk who had made a difference but who might have gone unheralded had she not homed in on them.

The columns, which ran from 1973 until the paper closed in 1991, form an archive of the old-guard citizenry, much of it gone.

In 1987, already in her late 50s, Mrs. Gaasch began teaching third grade at Mary E. Roberts Elementary School. "I don't think [administrators] really knew how old she was," her daughter said. "She looked fabulous."

She taught for 23 years and retired at 80, the onset of her cancer.

By closing out her life in the classroom, Mrs. Gaasch had come full circle.

Born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, she went to Case Western Reserve in Cleveland for her undergraduate and graduate degrees and predoctoral work. Her heart set on elementary education, she began teaching third grade in 1952. At 25, she was offered a principal's post.

Fearing that if she took the job she would be mired in Ohio forever, she and her sister packed a car and headed west. In California, she met and married an Air Force pilot, with whom she hopscotched the globe, living in a dozen locales including Scotland and Spain. There were three children in tow by the time the family moved, once and for all, to Moorestown in 1972.

The rest, as they say, is herstory.

A devout Catholic, a fierce guardian of her privacy, Mrs. Gaasch did not welcome plaudits for what she did, nor would she have wanted an obituary pointing it all out, her daughter said. She hung no plaques on her walls, kept no lists of her myriad memberships and awards.

"She had such a commitment to community, but she worked very quietly and was never one to seek the limelight," said Patricia Finio, a member of the Perkins board of trustees.

"I hope her spirit remains among us."

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a daughter, Karen Hartnett; a son, William; and three grandchildren. Interment will be private.

Contact Kathleen Tinney

at 610-313-8106.

comments powered by Disqus