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Jazzy Jean -101-year-old writes a poem a day

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Yvonne Boose
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Jean Schildbach

April is National Poetry Month, but a 101-year-old Elmhurst woman celebrates this art form every day.

On St. Patrick’s Day, Jean Schildbach sat in her living room chair, wearing a green sweater. Her neck was wrapped with a white scarf decorated in clovers. She said she must “gussy up” every day. This includes having nicely done hair and putting on earrings.

“I don't just do this today. I did it yesterday, and pretty much all through the month of March. I mean, I don't wear the same outfit,” she added.

Linda Bradley is Schildbach’s oldest daughter. She was there with her mother that day. Bradley said her mother styles herself based on the times. February’s dress code consisted of red clothing or garments that had heart designs.

Another daily routine Schildbach has is writing poetry.

“It happens in the middle of the night very often. I'll write a whole poem. I write a verse at a time,” she explained. “Soon as I get a verse in my head, I get up and write it down. Then I go back to bed and think about it, and work on the next verse.”

Schildbach said she remembers writing in the 1940s but recalls playing around with the art before that. She got married in 1950. As time went on she had three children. Raising her family meant she didn’t have a lot of time to write. She worked as a secretary but said sometimes the poetry bug gnawed at her.

“When I was working, I'd be typing but they thought I was doing [work]. But really, I was typing poems,” she revealed. “’Who will ever know?’ Now they will. Too late to do anything about it though.”

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Yvonne Boose
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Bradley pulled out a few books full of Schildbach’s poems. The collections are meant for family and friends, not the public. Schildbach’s youngest daughter puts together some of her works with the help of a personal publishing service.

“On the opposite page, that's Linda's favorite,” Schildbach explained. “That was about my husband. My minister read that in front of the church, believe it or not. Ernie was rambunctious.”

Ernie died in the 1980s. Schildbach explained that he did not like the way other people drove. She read a poem that sums up her feelings about his “Road Rage.”

The idiot in front of you who cut into your path

Is oblivious of your ravings and will never know your wrath.

Oh, the knucklehead behind you who's about to climb your trunk

Is obviously a moron or a stupid little punk,

But they'll never know their failings or hear your every slam,

And I'm tired of your wailings,

Frankly, I don't give a damn!

The next page has a poem about her son, who died in 2001 – on September 11th, the same day as the attacks on New York and Washington. Later that evening, Schildbach said, she received news that her son Ernest Richard had a heart attack while driving.

Schildbach said she writes about whatever is on her mind but there are certain topics she doesn’t share with everyone.

“And I write about politics too, which I do not repeat to anybody but family and good friends. But I don't want anybody coming after me,” she said. “But I have my likes and my dislikes and that's what keeps me going.”

Schildbach has a room with a television and a phone in it. She said those two things keeps her connected to humanity. She mostly writes in that room while sitting in a rocking chair. She said the light from the window makes it easier for her to see.

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Yvonne Boose
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A small doll sat in a miniature rocking chair. Schildbach said she’s had the toy since she was 3 years old. A painting with the doll’s image, which she created, laid against the wall next to the chair. She said her painting supplies are in the basement and since it’s not easy for her to get down there, she gave that hobby up.

Schildbach shared that she doesn’t need much to help her make it through the day. Her youngest daughter lives in California but sends her things via Instacart. Schildbach also goes out to get her hair done and loves clothes shopping. Her favorite store is Chico’s. She's a member of the same church she attended as a child and sang in the choir for over 80 years.

The other thing that keeps her moving is her walker, though she said it let her down a few weeks before. She fell and had to – as she puts it – “scooch” across the floor to a phone to call for help.

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Yvonne Boose
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Schildbach does have a Life Alert, but Bradley said her mother doesn’t like to wear it because it doesn’t go with any of her outfits.

Even so, at 101, Schildbach still has a sharp mind and can remember poems that she learned in high school. Her favorite is “The Children’s Hour” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She said her secret to memorizing poetry is focusing on one verse at a time.

Schildbach said she hopes to publish her work for a wider audience someday. But regardless of if that happens or not, she will continue writing and dressing to her tune of the day.

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.
Yvonne covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This could include how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities. Boose is a recent graduate of the Illinois Media School and returns to journalism after a career in the corporate world.