Geraldine Margaret Sinnen Schowalter was born on a farm in very rural southeastern Wisconsin, on September 13, 1925. She was the exact middle child of seven children of Jerome and Josephine (Pierron) Sinnen. Twin sisters, Marcella and Laverne and older brother, Norbert, preceded her. Younger brothers Roland and Jerome and sister, Alicia, followed her. Mom, Josephine, whose name had always been shortened to Josie, didn’t want any “ie” or “y” endings to her children’s names, and chose them thus. And, of course, within a few short years, the children’s names were shortened to Marcy, Vernie, Norbie, Rolly, Lishie, Junior and, of course, “Gerry,” thus Geraldine was known lovingly as Gerry for the rest of her life.
The country, fairly fresh out of World War I when she was born, her young life was colored by its effects, as well as the Great Depression. As a young woman, she experienced the effects of World War II, quite dramatically. When she was young, her family acquired and moved to the quite large Pierron family dairy farm on the corner of Jay Road and County Trunk B in rural Dacada, Wisconsin, and this is where she grew up. Her girlhood and adolescence were governed by the demands and hard work required by a busy dairy farm and a large family. Meaning and values came from the family’s devotion to St. Nicholas Catholic Church where she attended parochial school. Her church and religious connections were central to her early life, and remained so for the entire 94 years of her life. No one knew Gerry without knowing she was a deeply committed Catholic. She lived it and loved it.
Of her early life, Gerry remembers that there was always, always work to be done. Inside work and outside work. She preferred the outside work. In those early days she learned to be a hard worker, a characteristic that centered her to her dying day. She played baseball on the school grounds with childhood friends and remembers it to have been a major happening when she was able to go to town with a friend’s family, to see a movie. Anything the “in town” kids got to do, was very appealing to Gerry, and she was never destined for long-term life on the farm.
As a teenager, Gerry went to work for her uncle, Louis Pierron, who owned the popular “Dixie Tavern,” first as a dishwasher (which truly meant washing every dish by hand), and then a waitress. She remembers many nights standing at the window washing dishes while all her friends drove down the road heading to happy and carefree pursuits for the evenings. From her early life, Gerry was gregarious and friendly and loved to socialize. She did a lot of dating during her teen years and drew people to her with her welcoming smile and ready laugh, probably her most defining characteristic. In bearing and appearance, Gerry was always very attractive and thus, on a Saturday afternoon when Herb Schowalter and a group of his buddies, recently returned from wartime service, wandered into The Dixie, he laid eyes on her and never turned back. It was love at first sight for him. It took her a little longer, but the fact that he was an ”in town” boy, certainly piqued her interest. She eventually fell in love with him too and they were married in St. Nicholas Church on May 28, 1949.
The early years of Herb and Gerry’s marriage were characterized by some upheaval. He was finishing school on the GI bill at DeForrest Technical School (now DeVry University) in electronics engineering, so as newlyweds, they moved to Chicago. Just as he was ready to graduate, Herb received orders to return to naval service during the Korean Conflict. This was devastating to both of them – they had planned to return “home” to start a family. Instead, he reported for service to Portsmouth, Virginia, and soon sent for Gerry. She went to work on base and they spent the next year of their lives in Virginia. Herb’s only sibling, Richard, had been killed in World War II. Coping with that loss, and the resulting loneliness of Herb’s parents, became a centering feature of Herb and Gerry’s life. When finally schooling and service were done, they settled back in Saukville, Wisconsin, living in the upstairs flat of Herb’s parents’ home.
Soon Baby #1 was on the way. Herb and Gerry eventually became the parents of three daughters, Christine Ann, Lynne Marie and Jan Renee. They purchased a small home on South Main Street in Saukville, and Herb went to work for Square D Company, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as an electrical engineer. Herb commuted to work in the city every day and they built a happy and successful life. Gerry was the perfect supportive wife. She created a beautiful home, was an amazing cook and hostess, and there were many friends and family members who circled around them then and throughout their lives. Their home was always a welcoming hub of activity and fun. The Schowalters’ family life was centered in the activities and experiences of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church where Herb and Gerry participated in the Holy Name Society, the Christian Mothers, and later the Parish Steering Committee. The other center of their social lives was American Legion Landt-Thiel Post 470, and it’s Auxiliary where both Herb and Gerry served in leadership positions. The Church and the Legion brought many, many friends into their lives and the Schowalter home was always a bustling center of activity and enjoyment. Herb also served on the Village Board and became interested in politics, eventually serving two terms in the Wisconsin State Legislature, as an Assemblyman from Ozaukee County. There were yearly family vacations, regular extended family barbecues and parties, lots of involvement with friends near and far. Through it all, Gerry was the force that created the welcoming atmosphere, cooked and baked amazing food, and was an unfailing support to her busy and active husband. She provided that stalwart support through daunting challenges, till the end of Herb’s life.
In 1973, the Schowalter family faced a lifechanging decision. Square D Company had determined to relocate the great bulk of their manufacturing to Raleigh, North Carolina. Herb was offered a significant promotion to move with the Company. He could stay in Wisconsin, if he chose, but his employment would not be guaranteed for more than a year. He was also serving in the State Legislature at the time. Herb and Gerry had to decide between the security and promise of a position they knew he would love in Raleigh, or the fortunes of the political climate in Wisconsin. Relocating the family after generations of ancestors on both sides was enormously upending, but it was the choice they made. They lived in Raleigh for 10 years. During those years, Herb developed upsetting and mysterious symptoms of neurological disease, eventually, after several years, being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Their busy and active life came to a screeching halt and they confronted frightening realities. Within a few years, Herb was forced into a medical retirement and they were strongly encouraged by their doctors, to move to a warmer climate for Herb’s health.
In 1983, Herb and Gerry, shaken by the centrality and overwhelming realities of Herb’s illness, moved to Mesa, Arizona, where oldest daughter, Chris and her family, had made their home. Herb and Gerry built a beautiful home on Kael Circle, within a mile of Chris’ family. They tried to get comfortable in their new surroundings. Herb badly needed something to occupy his strong mind, even as his body was failing. Enter the beginnings and needs of St. Bridget Catholic Church – a new parish being established in their neighborhood. Herb and Gerry applied the talents they knew best, to the needs of this new church community and they were centrally important. Herb served on the building committee, the finance committee and headed the Parish Council. Herb and Gerry hosted daily mass in their home for months while the church was being built. The church centered them and they centered the church. It was an answer to prayer for this time in their lives, and the connections they formed at St. Bridget’s, carried them through the most difficult times they’d known. Herb’s health continued to decline. He was pretty completely paralyzed and wheelchair bound by MS when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1996. As he had done all his life, Herb fought the disease actively and with great focus and effort. And as she had done all her life, Gerry supported him with all her might. Their lives were hard, sometimes overwhelmingly so, but their family and their dear friends at St. Bridget rallied around them and carried them through the hard times. Herb lost his 26-month battle with cancer in March of 1998, and Gerry lived her remaining years as a widow.
Herb was the love of Gerry’s life, and she had absolutely no interest in remarriage. She continued and increased her activities with St. Bridget Parish life, and invested deeply in her family. Daughter Chris, Son-in-law, Robert and their five children, kept her going as well. She continued to cook fabulous meals and maintain her beautiful home, and eventually thrived and participated in many volunteer opportunities with the church, having a busy social life and many, many friends who admired her cheerfulness, optimism and hard work. Gerry was blessed with physical health all her life. It was hard to believe the absence of necessary medications as life went along and she became elderly. She was always spry, busy and quick and no one ever believed her true age because she always lived so much younger. She has many friends of all generations who considered her a peer, few of them really grasping how old she really was becoming.
In 2018, at age 92, with an aging body and an aging and large home, it became time to make a difficult change. Gerry elected to move to Sunrise Senior Independent Living Center, in Gilbert, just five minutes away from Chris. It was a painful time in her life, but she bore it with her characteristic grit and will power. She settled into life at Sunrise and her wonderful St. Bridget friends continued to involve her in their community life as many of them visited, and picked her up to take her to daily mass, cluster activities and other events at the church. Gerry had five grandchildren who were deeply involved in her life. Regular visits from daughters, Lynne and Jan, who live in Raleigh, North Carolina, were meaningful and sweet. She continued to have a busy and full life. Out of the blue, in July of 2018, Gerry was diagnosed with colon cancer. Doctors worried that she could not survive surgery to remove the offending tumor. Survive it she did, and bounced back amazingly quickly. Her life continued to progress in happy and meaningful ways. Her mind was sharp, her body was strong, and we hoped for many more good years together. She withstood the onerous demands of the Covid-19 crisis with grace and resilience. Though it was extremely difficult to cope with the loneliness and quarantine imposed in her home by the virus, Gerry’s girls kept in daily video contact with Marco Polo. Never one with a strong understanding of technology, the family regards it as a true gift from heaven that she was able to manage the requirements of that app, and thus we were able to “see” each other every day. She was a source of cheer and continuing optimism among the residents at Sunrise, who felt so isolated.
Gerry’s family learned, about the same time as Covid lockdowns occurred, that Gerry’s cancer had recurred. Her doctor felt it was slow-growing and non-aggressive. But we knew it was there. Gerry chose to live her days on the outskirts of that knowledge. She didn’t want to think about it or acknowledge it, and her family agreed she was entitled to that choice. We would wait for the day symptoms would arise. She wanted to continue in her life at Sunrise, and when the possibility of moving to Chris’ home was suggested, she consistently refused.
A little more than two weeks ago, Gerry began, quite suddenly, to experience severe, disabling, and excruciating pain in her back. In order to medicate appropriately, doctors had to know what was causing the pain. A scan revealed a series of serious compression fractures all up and down her spine, along with cancer recurrence in her liver and colon. Chris immediately moved Gerry into her home, notified her sisters who came immediately, and our vigil began. Gerry was mentally sharp and aware to the very end of her life, but the overwhelming pain required strong medication. Though her suffering was mighty, it was blessedly brief, and on Friday, July 24, she quietly and peacefully slipped away, taken home to the God who gave her life, and the arms of her loving husband.
Gerry is preceded in death by her devoted husband, Herb, her parents, Jerome and Josephine (Pierron) Sinnen, sisters Marcella Schmitz and Laverne Wetor, brothers, Norbert, Roland and Jerome Sinnen, and her great-grandson, Lincoln Robert Packard. She is survived by her three daughters, Christine (Robert) Packard, Lynne (Dan) Garguilo, and Jan (David) Johnston, her five grandchildren, Rochelle Packard, Robert (Shannon) Packard, Stacie (Matt) Dalebout, David (Paige) Packard, and TJ (Audrey) Packard. She is further survived by 10 great-grandchildren, Jacob, Owen, Anna and Claire Dalebout, Miles, Brigham and Lucy Packard, Reagan Packard, Brady and Hudson Packard. Her sister, Alicia (Don) Nowack is the stalwart, remaining loved Sinnen sister. Gerry has many nieces, nephews, a few remaining cousins, and a legion of loving friends. She will be missed more than words can express. All Gerry’s survivors believe with strong faith that she has gone on to a better, lovelier life, and that she has quickly discovered that she is safe, real and reunited with the people who have loved her through this life. She has been lovingly attended by family on both sides of the mortal veil, through the years, and particularly through her final two weeks on the earth.
Funeral services will be held on Wednesday, July 29, 2020 beginning with a short viewing at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, 2213 North Lindsay Road, Mesa, AZ 85213, followed by a funeral mass. Covid requirements strongly limit the number of people who can attend in person; thus, the services will be livestreamed. A link will be provided. If you desire to attend in person, please call St. Bridget Church at 480-924-9111, to reserve a place. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to St. Bridget Catholic Church, or to Hospice At Home of Arizona, 1423 S. Higley Road, Unit 121, Mesa, AZ 85206.
The Schowalter family would particularly like to thank Dr. Hugo Fazz, Dr. Chris Allen, Dr. Chad Cherrington, Hospice nurse, John, aides Emi and Jennifer, and all the friends and loved ones who have supplied meals, support and comfort, compassion and loving care to our mother and ourselves during these challenging days.
Gerry was a mortal force to be reckoned with. She was strong till the day she died. Heaven has received one of its hardest, happiest workers, and the void she leaves with us here will keep us longing for that heaven where we can one day join her. Undoubtedly, she’ll have a beautiful table spread when that blessed day arrives.