The tapestry of Gertrude Guckenheimer's life was woven with beauty and strength, imagination and insight, depth and precision, compassion and integrity, intelligence and wit, clarity and resilience, fairness and love. All were richly colored against the background of courage. These qualities, while always apparent to those who worked with Gertrude, especially in her years teaching at Sidwell, were constant both before and after that fortunate time.
Her story, briefly told here, sets her apart from others and yet strengthens the connection with any one who thinks deeply and is courageous. Gertrude, the second daughter of an upper middle-class Jewish family who owned the second largest clothing store in Darmstadt, Germany, was born on December 12, 1916. The Goldsmiths lived above the store in an comfortable apartment. Even so, food was in short supply, as Gertrude's birth took place in the midst of what was sadly to be the first of two world wars. Fortunately, two years later the war ended, ensuring her a happy childhood, until the arrival of the Nazis.
In her teenage years Gertrudes family sent her to Switzerland to study, removing her from the pressures of increasing inflation and confrontations with the Nazis who had come to power. This was a difficult time and a wrenching change for a teenager. Her daughter
In 1938 Gertrude immigrated to Pasadena, California, to join distant family members who had settled there after escaping from Germany. She brought as many valuable goods as possible to sell to enable other family members to follow her, since the German government would not permit Jews to bring out large sums of money. Soon she received a letter from Ludwig Guckenheimer, a Darmstadt friend of her older sister, Johanna, welcoming her to America and inviting her to join him in Louisiana where he was studying for a master's degree in social work at Tulane University. Six months later she took the trip, remembering her father's warm approval of Ludwig. Gertrude and Ludwig were married ten days later on September 9, 1939. The bride was just 22.
The young family in New Orleans quickly expanded when Ludwig's mother, Sophie, was rescued from certain death by fleeing Germany in a sealed train and then sailing from Portugal on the second-to-last refugee boat to leave Europe. Gertrude sold the cameras she had brought in her luggage to pay for Sophie's passage. For the next 30 years, Sophie, who never learned English, lived with her son and daughter-in-law, rarely leaving the house, a difficult situation for the young bride who had made the decision to rescue her. As her son John commented, Gertrude spent her life doing things for others, expecting nothing in return. It was not a surprise that she and Ludwig valued family, as they never forgot that it was family members who had saved their lives.
In September 1940,
Ludwig?s job required a move to Louisiana's state capitol, Baton Rouge, where he worked with "displaced persons," immigrants like himself. Gertrude was adept at feeding her family on homegrown vegetables, fruit, and pecans and making clothes for her growing children. She was active in B'nai Israel, the reformed synagogue across town, attending Sabbath services and teaching Sunday School.
In Baton Rouge, the Guckenheimers' two sons were born, John Mark in 1945, and Sam in 1956. John started school in the second grade, skipping the first, as had his two sisters, the oldest of whom left for college shortly after Sam was born. Meanwhile, their maternal grandmother moved nearby, becoming part of all family activities: playing games after dinner, baking German cookies and cakes at holiday time and mailing them to friends and family, and giving Gertrude some assistance and freedom.
After the family, now with two grandmothers and one remaining child, moved to Maryland in 1967, a tradition of family summer vacations in various parts of the world began, since Elizabeth and her family lived in England and others had moved all over the United States. While the family had explored those states near Louisiana, they now reached out further. Tales of the beaches of Wales, Cornwall, and Cape Cod and the glories of the food in Honfleur enlivened their lives and conversations. In this way, Gertrude worked hard at keeping the growing family united, sure that the grandchildren would know each other and never forget family's importance.
Gertrudes passion for education, everyone's education, but particularly her own and that of her children, was one thread in the tapestry of her life. She fought for a curriculum change in the Baton Rouge schools so that two years of a foreign language would be available, knowing this was a requirement for admission to the fine colleges she wanted her children to attend.
Beginning in 1968, Gertrude taught German with such talent that Sidwell students could remember appropriate phrases when traveling in Germany 20 years later. Even so, her real love was teaching mathematics, especially to those who were challenged by abstract ideas. She asked to have these students assigned to her care and measured herself by the progress she made with them. Gertrude appreciated each child's unique strengths and loved to discuss her techniques, some of which were developed to help individual students. Using concrete objects, like dried beans, tape measures, and canning jars full of pennies, she gave her students structure, clarity, and ways for them to build their confidence. She shared her ideas at teacher's conferences, giving workshops as well as publishing papers. These enriched many teachers' portfolios and enhanced students' mathematical careers.
Teaching mathematics was only one facet of Gertrude's creativity. It had surfaced earlier as she sculpted clay figures, did fine needlework, and produced other types of writing. It appeared again in the annual school skit when Gertrude dressed with flair as Marlene Dietrich, complete with blonde wig. Such glee! Such spunk! And then there was her courage, her willingness to speak out on difficult issues when others among the faculty were too timid.
Sidwell honored Gertrude with a special assembly at her retirement in 1981. John Guckenheimer, renowned Professor of Mathematics at Cornell University, came as a surprise speaker. Emulating his mother, he used a cutting edge mathematical concept, iteration, to capture the interest of his teenage audience, as he honored his mother's love of the subject and of teaching.
After the Sidwell years and Ludwig's death in 1991, Gertrude lived alone for the first time in her life, but among a community of Jewish elders in Rockville. There she quickly made new friends and acquired the nickname "GG." As Parkinson's disease began to take its toll a few years later, Gertrude moved to Massachusetts to be near Sam and his family and later to New York, to be close to John and his family. Always looking out for others, she planned carefully for her long and difficult illness, as she disliked being a burden to her children as she had been burdened. Gertrude died peacefully in her sleep at age 86 on September 16, 2003, soon after she had told John, "I lived a good life." Her family had expanded from four children, to numerous grandchildren ranging in age from 6 to 43, to nine great grandchildren. Even as her physical and mental abilities decreased, she told Sam, who had adopted children born in Cambodia, "Their story is like ours."
All gathered for a last farewell at Temple Sinai in Washington where Gertrude had been President of the Sisterhood. Her last legacy was honored in the dedication of the 2004 publication of a joint project of The Actuarial Science Foundation and WISER, the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement: "..she helped others improve their lives by teaching how planting the seeds of savings truly can change lives for the better." Gertrude wanted a better world; she worked for it, and consequently many gained it.
With acknowledgement and appreciation to Elizabeth Lee-Guckenheimer,
1 John Donne, 1624. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, No. 17 Gertrude Guckenheimer, a lover of poetry, suggested to her thirteen year old son, Sam that he read Donne. Sam memorized this phrase and others and used them as the backbone for his tribute to his mother at her memorial service.
OTHER TRIBUTES TO GERTRUDE GUCKENHEIMER
JoanReinthaler, current Upper School math teacher and former department chair:
Gertrude was teaching both German and math when I first came to Sidwell. She had taken on the small Algebra 1 class as her special job. This was a class of kids for whom math was scary, mysterious, and difficult, and Gertrude set out each year to coax them into understanding. Armed with jars of different colored beans, she would reveal to them the mysteries of equations. She arranged special meetings with their parents to demonstrate ways to help and to encourage their children. Year after year, she turned out confident and competent math students.
In those days we had what we called "centered meetings." During 3rd period on Thursdays, teachers led small groups in topics they were particularly interested in. Gertrude led a "Stories of the Old Testament" meeting. Kids flocked there because she told these stories with all the drama and wonder of a master actress. This wasn't the only way her acting ability revealed itself. She wasn't very tall and she wasn't very sylph-like, but every year in a faculty show for the seniors, Gertrude became Greta Garbo, and with a fright-wig and her throaty German-accented come-hither lines, she would slither across the stage and bring down the house.
In my mind Gertrude was always a beacon of integrity. In faculty meetings, she was the one person in the whole place who was not afraid to speak unpopular or politically-incorrect truths, and the rest of the faculty used to sigh with relief when she stood up to speak her mind.
What I will remember most powerfully, however, is the time Gertrude invited me over for dinner to meet a woman whom she had known from her home town in Germany. As I remember it, even though this woman had been a Nazi Youth Corps member, Gertrude was able to put that awful time in perspective, welcome the woman into her home, and understand that, at that time, many young people had no choices about their affiliations. My German being vestigial, Gertrude carried on a three-way conversation in two languages with such elegance that I (and I suspect, the guest - whose name I can't remember) were hardly aware that we weren't actually talking to each other directly.
John Mahoney, former Upper School math teacher:
In 1978, during my first year at Sidwell, my wife and I bought an old farmhouse just up the block from where Gertrude and her husband, Ludwig, lived in Bethesda. Gertrude had been a colleague of mine in the mathematics department, but I didn't know her well until she asked if I would be willing to give her rides back and forth to school.
For three years, until her retirement in 1981, Gertrude and I commuted together. Every morning , in her grey cloth coat, she would walk up the block, sit in my 1975 red Volkswagen Rabbit, and wait patiently for me to come out with my morning coffee. Gertrude was a great companion. She talked primarily about her Algebra 1 students and the variety of methods she used to teach the students in this class. She individualized her methods for each of the students. Often she designed games for them to play which would reinforce concepts and techniques. At the time, I was teaching BC Calculus and senior math. I had little experience with teaching ninth graders, particularly Algebra 1. I quickly came to appreciate the quality of her teaching and her commitment to students.
I have many memories of Gertrude at Sidwell. In 1980, the Arts Center was built and, along with it, the Meeting Room. At the first Meeting for Worship in that room, Gertrude was the first to speak. I wish I could remember her exact words, but I recall that she focused on the importance of having a place for silent worship at Sidwell Friends School.
Gertrude not only rode in with me in the mornings, but she would accompany me on errands I had to do after school. We were an odd couple. I was half her age and a foot taller. She introduced me to Bruce's Variety store in Bethesda. When John F. Zeidman '79 invited me to come to his house for lunch after his graduation, I asked him whether Gertrude could come along. He said sure, and we had a lovely time there. Two years later, after John?s untimely death following a mosquito bite in China, Gertrude also accompanied me to John?s home where we paid our respects to his family.
In 1981, Gertrude retired and the math department was faced with a huge problem: Who would teach Algebra 1? Inspired by Gertrude, I volunteered and soon realized the rewards - and challenges - of teaching this important course. To this day, it remains my favorite class.
My wife and I raised our four children in our farmhouse. For years after Gertrude's retirement, I would bring the kids by her house at Halloween. There she and Ludwig would greet us warmly and we would catch up on old times.
Gertrude was a great companion, colleague, and neighbor.
Last revised 2/27/200