Thursday, July 18, 2013

Obituary (Jeanne's Own Case History)

Don carried this cameo-like profile photo in his wallet 
Jeanne Mary Keeler McGirk
     born Glendale, California July 18, 1920
     died Santa Cruz, California July 16, 2013

Jeanne Keeler McGirk, a vivacious southern Californian who lived her last fifteen years in Santa Cruz, traveled extensively-- first as a schoolmistress in Central America, and later as a petroleum explorer's wife in Latin America, Spain, Britain and China. She had an extraordinary talent for making and keeping friends. A dazzling hostess like Jeanne was a corporate asset for Texaco, and her expatriate lifestyle began in the age of prop planes and steamers. She and her husband Don became early jet-setters.

Jeanne graduated in 1942 from the University of Southern California, where she earned a BA in sociology, and worked on newsreels with USC's fledgling Department of Cinema.  Later she reported for a local newspaper, took reservations for Western Airlines and briefly sold clothing in the men & boys' department at Bullocks' Wilshire. She left Los Angeles in 1946 to go south of the border and organize schools for the United Fruit Company. She taught banana workers' children in Costa Rica and Panama. She confided that she was engaged to four different fellows - but, she always stressed, not simultaneously! Eventually, when she eloped in Panama City in January 1947, she received a huge bunch of bananas from the judge as her first wedding gift. While her geologist husband, Donald Dea McGirk, hunted for petroleum, she kept house and entertained guests in jungle oil camps, grand town homes or high rise apartments in Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Madrid, London, and Hong Kong. Her rendition of a howler monkey's cry was a memorable party trick that would set her blonde curls quivering and rattled the ice cubes in highball glasses. She loved to laugh and to dress up and arrange flowers.  Jungle orchids adorned her quarters at Roblecito oil camp in Venezuela.  Gathering new friends around her cocktail table to "talk about life" was one of her greatest joys.

She'd worked in the personnel section of a Texaco Latin American field office in the late 1940s, then taught elementary school again, and during the terrifying violence called the Bogotazo she shepherded one of her second graders home past riots and burning cars. While Don was away in the Putumayo for months at a time scouting for oil, Jeanne was a very imaginative cub scout den mother in Bogota. Throughout her life she channeled "Mother Teresa" for countless friends who confided in her. She tangoed in Latin America, did the limbo in Trinidad & Tobago, partied elegantly in Franco's Spain, witnessed the Swinging Sixties from her flat on the King's Road and also showed high end real estate in London in the 1970s. Freddy Laker's bargain charter flights sent vast numbers of visiting relatives and friends her way. While living in Hong Kong, she took on the thankless task of trying to persuade sailors to spend their shore leave picking up trinkets instead of  a case of gonorrhea in the Kowloon brothels. She also volunteered to cheer up Vietnamese Boat People locked in refugee camps near her mid-levels flat. In 1980s China, she banqueted with officials in Beijing, took corporate wives to the jade market, and traveled to remote rural provinces where she once spotted a stalwart peasant woman under a tree nursing a piglet and a human infant at the same time.

In 1998, Jeanne and Don moved to Santa Cruz full time and made new friends at the beach house they had inherited near Schwan Lake. The McGirks welcomed the college friends of their grandsons to brunch or cocktails up the hill near Pasatiempo, where they ultimately retired.  In May 2012, Don passed away. Nena Ramel, Jeanne's caregiver for her final five years, became her most intimate friend and anticipated her every discomfort. They teased one another and laughed alot.

The only daughter of the renowned ceramicist Rufus Keeler, and his wife Mary Leary, Jeanne had three brothers--Bradley, Byron, and Philip. They romped on the beaches and swam offshore in Malibu where her father ran the Malibu Potteries from 1926-1932. [Her father Rufus had learned to bodysurf at Seabright Beach as a boy in the mid-1890s and urged all his pottery workers to take part in  group swimming sessions in the open ocean.] Adamson House, which features Keeler's signature ceramic tiles throughout, now is a California State Park at Malibu Lagoon. The ornate tile house in Southgate where Jeanne grew up was hand built by both her parents, and many of her dad's distinctive glazed tiles ended up decorating their neighbor Simon Rodia's quirky Watts Towers.
Rufus died when Jeanne was just 12. 

Jeanne socialized with a wide variety of people, including  the wife of Generalissimo Franco in Madrid and Nanita Kalashnikov, a muse of Salvador Dali who was vaguely related to the inventor of the AK-47. Jeanne and Don once appeared on a tv chat show with Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and found him rather charming.  She'd boldly booked a bargain trip from a London bucket shop to Egypt because prices skydived in 1997 immediately after 58 foreign tourists were slain at Luxor.  The McGirks also joined in Marine reunions and rekindled old World War II-era  friendships while traveling within the United States after retirement. Don's motto was "Don't let the bastards grind you down, " and they didn't.

Jeanne is survived by her journalist son Tim McGirk, and his wife Jan, of Santa Cruz, plus two grandsons: James McGirk of Tahlequah, Oklahoma and Sean McGirk of Maymana, Faryab, Afghanistan. She will be greatly missed.

Hugging her grandson Jamie
Grandson Sean eventually towered over his Grandma Jeanne

A family canal trip on the straight and narrow in Britain. Susan Young suggests that this must be near Llangollen, North Wales, because she notices her own mother, Frances Ffoulkes-Jones, is sitting to the right of Jeanne.

1 comment: