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. Keen on Scrabble and skipping supper for dessert, she takes pleasure in the small things.
On the other hand, she’s an extraordinary woman whose life embodies many of the century’s most meaningful advances. The granddaughter of homesteaders, her forebears fled Europe to escape conscription into the Kaiser’s armies. After nearly dying of scarlet fever as an adolescent, she went in three short decades from living among sharecroppers to socializing with astronauts. A militant if unconscious feminist, she fought for equal pay for women even before joining the Navy during World War II.
After going to graduate school on the GI Bill, she became the first woman elected to the school board in Saginaw, Michigan. Abandoned by her husband, she rose to become the first female bank vice president in northern Illinois. After retirement, she hit the road, traveling extensively across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
A talented pianist, sculptor, and painter, her life has been one long attempt at self-improvement. Though a proud American and lifelong Presbyterian, Jayne has views on nationalism, religion, and politics that are anything but conventional. This, with certain omissions, is her story.
Jayne Pheiffer, née Cowan, was born on December 18, 1920, in Ambia, Indiana, a small outpost on the Lake Erie and Western Railroad.
Though every year is fateful, few have been as momentous as the one in which she entered the world. That January, Prohibition went into effect, the League of Nations was founded, and J. Edgar Hoover kicked off the first Red Scare. 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. Fear and hope in equal measure filled the air.
It was also a time of vast improvements. 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. 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. For the first time in history, the average American had actual mobility.
Europe, however, was in turmoil. While putschists vied for power in Berlin, Bolsheviks were pushing the last of the Whites into the Black Sea. Everything, and nothing, seemed possible. Constantinople was under British and French occupation, Smyrna under Greek. 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.
1920 was the last year the United States was equal parts urban and rural. To the world’s 1.8 billion people, the US had 106 million. Life expectancy was 54. Seven percent of Americans lived in New York City, which overtook London that year as the world’s largest. The number-one song on the charts was Al Jolson’s “Swanee,” written by George Gershwin and performed in blackface.
Things were quieter back in Ambia, a town of 459 souls not far from the family farm in Hoopeston, Illinois. Jayne’s father, Archibald “Blizzard” Cowan, was a pharmacist who ran the local drug store. Her mother, Elsie Schurman Cowan, was a homemaker. After Archibald (“Blazes”) and Bob, she was the youngest of three.
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. Growing up on farms across the Upper Midwest, his hankering for the hoe died forever one winter in the early 1900s. Tasked with keeping an eye on the family plot in South Dakota, he spent three months alone on the frozen American steppe. He made for the city the first chance he got.
In Chicago, Arch enrolled in pharmacology school and soon met a girl at his boardinghouse called Elsie, who was studying to become a beautician. The daughter of German immigrants, she too had grown up in small-town Illinois, a place called Pekin. They married in 1912.
Jayne’s parents had a rough and tumble time of it in their first decade together. 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. They finally docked in Peoria, whose prodigious whiskey and tractor production would soon make it the Ur-town of Middle America.
Of the Depression, Jayne’s memories are not overly dark. Sure, things were hard: Walgreens cut her father’s pay by 30 percent, and he was always in perpetual terror of losing his job. But they never went hungry. After all, they hadn’t invested a dime in the stock market, nor had anyone else they knew. Her brothers handed over their wages each week from the root-beer stand and paper route.
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.
The big break came after the 21st Amendment did away with Prohibition. 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. 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.
Jayne is no stranger to quarantines. In eighth grade, she caught a bout of scarlet fever so bad she had to be quarantined for half a year. Her father and brothers had to move out of the house, while her mother thought she’d die. Her legs were so weak that she had to wear orthopedic shoes for several years. “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. Not only did they visit New York, Washington, and Baltimore, they saw Gettysburg and met “real live hillbillies” in the Appalachians. 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.
A hint of the feminist Jayne would later become also reared its head. “In Baltimore,” she writes, “there were blocks and blocks of apartment houses with white stone steps in front, and women out scrubbing them. 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. For the wealthier, college and marriage opened certain doors. Her classmate Betty Friedan, for example, who would go on to launch second wave feminism, went off to Smith after graduating from Peoria High.
Jayne, however, like her childhood idols, had always wanted to be a teacher. “All of them were single women,” she gushed, “a fact that everyone took for granted. 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. At $80 per month, her wage wasn’t terrible. After the $5 she gave to the family she boarded with and the $10 in bus fare, she could pocket $50 a month.
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. 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.
Back at the Priestley’s, with whom she boarded, things were scarcely better. 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. Though poor, they were decent and hardworking people.
Mrs. Priestley, for her part, had two great joys: the peach-canning competition, which she won that year, and eavesdropping on her neighbors. Since several households shared a phone line, communications were somewhat communal. Paying her bill as she did, Mrs. Priestley figured she had as much a right as anyone to listen in. How dare the neighbors speak German when she was on the line!
The family also brought Jayne along to Granger meetings, where she met neighbors and local lads. Though the latter rarely impressed, it was not for lack of trying. “I will say this,” one wrote to her. “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 it also pushed her. “My ambitions were fueled, my self-reliance strengthened. The ‘real world,’ even from this limited perspective, wasn’t going to go out of its way to accommodate me.”
Back in Peoria, Jayne got a job at an excellent public school, where she met George Bartlett, a fellow teacher 14 years her senior. 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. “It was love at first flight!” she jokes.
When George proposed, she said yes. “He was 35 and ready to settle down. 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. “He was a grand man, and I was lucky to get somebody. 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’d point him right in the direction of the washing machine!” she jokes. “When he complained about a shirt of his, I realized he was a bit stuffy, and called the whole thing off. I’d rather be a spinster than spend my life mending George’s shirts!”
As if liberated, she also began organizing at work. But the school board wouldn’t budge on equal pay for women. “Don’t you have daddies or boyfriends who can take care of you?” was one board member’s reply. “It’s been a pleasure working for you,” Jayne said, and quit.
But what was she to do? She had no desire to paste labels on whiskey bottles for the rest of her life. Luckily, she chanced upon a spiffy Navy recruiting poster. “Here was this picture of a gorgeous woman directing airplanes in the sky,” she gushes, “flanked by a real hunk taking orders from her. 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.
With both her brothers already in uniform, Jayne was completing the Cowan family trifecta. As a college graduate, her eldest brother, Arch, had gone to South America on intelligence work. Bob, less studious, was sent to retake the malaria-ridden Filipino jungles from the Japanese. As the tallest in her batch of WAVES, Jayne led her squadron’s weekly marches down Fifth Avenue. On one occasion, she was detailed to help Eleanor Roosevelt out of her car and introduce the First Lady to the squadron. “Those were some high-level duties!”
Things got even spicier down in Atlanta, where she was sent for special training once she’d been accepted as an air traffic controller. 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. Edelmann of Michigan, whom she met one Sunday at church. “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. A terrifically good sport, Frenchie was up for anything. He even came out to see her in Peoria. But when the time came for Frenchie to go to war, they amicably parted ways and never heard from one another again. “I always knew I was just practicing,” Jayne says.
Her training completed, she served out her time at the US Naval Base at Ottumwa, Iowa, having picked the post closest to home. The men on base — which included a young lieutenant from California named Richard Nixon — were not thrilled with the girls’ arrival. 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. Only after completing them with courage and competence did they win the men’s respect.
One story in particular highlights the awkward time they had. One night a superior tried to get fresh with her. “Not caring for his advances,” she jumped away from him — only to fall down the stairs and break her leg. “What could you do?” she asks. “In those days you handled things yourself.”
Since service members rode the rails for free, all you needed in those days was a uniform. Without packing a bag, Jayne and her friends would ride up to Chicago and stay at the YMCA for $2 a night. And with the $65 a month she now took home, she also got her teeth fixed. “It wasn’t enough that I had flaming red hair!” she jokes. “I also had to have buckteeth. Now I realize it wasn’t that bad. But you know how it is when you’re young and feeling imperfect.”
After the war, Jayne enrolled at the University of Illinois on the GI Bill in the hopes of furthering her Naval career. 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.
Having sufficiently dabbled, she was ready for something serious. So was Gene Pheiffer, whom she met on the bus one day going back to college from Peoria. This tall, strapping lad from a little town called Monmouth had also served, as a reserve officer in France. About to finish his master’s degree in economics, he was as serious about Jayne as he was about making money. From the moment she took the seat next to him on the bus, he would be hard to shake for the next quarter-century. They were married at the First Presbyterian Church in Peoria on December 26, 1946.
“Gene was smart, ambitious, serious about his studies, and, to my eyes, extremely handsome,” Jayne says. “Upbeat and proactive with a good word for everybody. 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. 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. His mother, terribly unhappy, escaped by driving her car into an oncoming train. Orphaned when his father left, Gene was raised by a kindly neighbor.
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. 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. The couple made their way to the Windy City in 1947.
With 16 million service members recently decommissioned, there was a major postwar housing shortage. After a stint at the YMCA, the newlyweds rented a room from a family on the South Side. Only later did they land a place in Evanston, the same suburb where her parents had first courted 30 years earlier.
Before long, Gene was offered a promotion at the Savings and Loan, this time as president of the Saginaw branch. A booming industrial city, Saginaw had grown immensely during the war. 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 couple dove right into civic life, joining the Presbyterian Church and the Junior Chamber of Commerce (JCC). 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. “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. It was the happiest day of her life. And one blessing came after the other: less than two years later, she gave birth to Phil, this author’s father. But the more she saw of the kids, the less she saw of her husband. “Gene’s urge to win in business soon became compulsive,” she recalls. “All he did was work.”
Before long, he was state president of the JCC, even encouraged by friends to run for Congress. This he declined: in those days, he feared, you couldn’t make any money in Washington. Instead he helped elect his pal Jim Harvey, who later got them tickets to Nixon’s inaugural ball. Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, was also an old Michigan buddy.
But success was hardly Gene’s alone. Jayne ran for the school board, a first for a woman in the the city’s history, and won. “Half the town was incredibly gung-ho about the prospect, and half thought all hell might break loose,” she jokes. “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 family reached its social peak soon after moving to Rockford. 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. They bought a big, beautiful house on Upper Harlem Boulevard and joined the country club. 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. Yet the big change would come sooner than she could imagine.
Returning from a weekend away, Jayne found an empty house with a note on the table. Gene had gathered his belongings and run off with his secretary. 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.
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. Offers came pouring in — years of volunteering and civic engagement had not gone for naught. The president of Central National Bank approached her after church one morning. “How’d you like to come work for us?” “What can you offer” she asked him. “What do you want?” he replied.
By this time, it was 1972, and women’s groups had been putting pressure on corporations for years. 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!”). Starting out as director of personnel, Jayne rose to become the first female vice president in the history of the city’s banking sector.
More importantly, she was no longer simply “Gene’s wife,” but rather Jayne Pheiffer: Vice President. “I was known and respected on my own merits,” she says, “something terribly important to me. Who cares if my meteoric rise had to do with my gender! 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. “If prince charming would have come along,” she concedes, “I might have married him. But being single is a lot easier than being married.”
Instead, she took to the road. Though she had never left the country before, she soon ventured abroad on a yearly basis. Starting out with England and Scotland, she went on to visit Greece and Spain, only just democratized. Next came the Alps, the only place that brought tears to her eyes. 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. Told they would “observe Chinese religion,” she was a little perturbed when the “frustrated missionary” leading their expedition, Dr. Bass, gave them Mandarin-language Bibles to hide in their luggage. 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. In addition to becoming president of the Rockford Symphony Orchestra, Jayne took up sculpting, wood carving, painting, and playing the violin.
“I feel so annoyed when people get to feeling too special about being from the United States,” she confesses. “After seeing a bit of the world, I just don’t believe in superiority anymore. I think of better fortune, the luck of the draw, and where you happen to be born.”
“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. “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. “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. Though a staunch Presbyterian, she abhors the exclusivity of Christianity.
They say that God loves everybody and to love your neighbor. 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! This I cannot accept. What’s worse, even Christians can’t go to heaven unless they say, out loud: “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior.” Rubbish! As if the Almighty were hanging by the thread of something muttered underneath our breath!
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. “The Bible was written by people! And mainly men. I have no doubt there were plenty of smart women out there, but what they wrote never got included. I don’t doubt they were inspired by God, but it’s just like history. History is simply what somebody said about something. It may or may not have happened that way! People choose to talk about history as if it were gospel, but it isn’t! Just have an automobile accident and see how things get reported.
The same skepticism applies to the afterlife. “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! 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. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will buoy us unto death.” She winks. “Take reincarnation. 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. “And what are the experts proposing to resolve this? They say we’re going to build communities on the moon and under the ocean! 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? “I’d make everyone love each other,” she says without hesitation. “But I used to think that birth control made retroactive might be better.”
“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. When the doctors see my age, they expect to see a white-haired old crone. When they see a pink-haired old crone, they don’t quite know what to do!”
Though Jayne’s centennial celebration was cancelled because of the pandemic, it’s no big deal. “We’ll just have to fête my hundred and first,” she says. And if that never comes, so be it. “I’ve already had my fair share of champagne.”
“This set of remembrances will never be finished,” she wrote back in 2004. “Each recollection suggests others. While amendments and additions are still possibilities, I plan to stop now. I count myself happy, privileged, blessed beyond any deserving. 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.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Evan Pheiffer studied history and politics in New York, London, and Paris. A freelance writer and editor, he has been based in Istanbul since 2016.