Jean Rolfing Cleland, 89, whose life was defined by devotion to social justice, hands-on advocacy, family, and faith, died September 19 in her Wilmette home.|
She leaves six children (David, Stuart, Carter, Phillip, Trena, and Roger) and three grandchildren (Kelsey, Desmond, and Natalie).
Until early 2013 Cleland worked at the North Shore Senior Center as case manager and Community Education Director. For 35 years she helped clients plan for retirement and navigate Medicare, Medicaid and other benefit programs. She loved the diversity of clients and staff, the variety of tasks, and her opportunity to tangibly improve people's lives.
A passionate crusader for fair and affordable housing, Cleland was a founder in the 1950s and '60s of the Wilmette Human Relations Committee and the North Shore Summer Project (NSSP), catalysts for ending north suburban housing discrimination. The NSSP orchestrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s historic 1965 speech on the Winnetka Village Green. Meeting him was a highlight of Cleland's life; she was thrilled that during his speech, Dr. King wore an "Equal Housing" lapel pin she gave him.
As members of Wilmette's First Congregational Church, UCC (United Church of Christ) for 54 years, she and her husband, Robert, challenged the congregation to oppose the Vietnam War and to support civil rights and nuclear disarmament.
"Justice doesn't happen accidentally," she once said. "It takes hard work and strong beliefs."
In the 1970s and '80s, Cleland was moderator of UCC's Chicago Metropolitan Association and later, president of its Illinois Conference. The Clelands joined the First Congregational Church of Evanston, UCC in 2004.
As a social justice activist, Cleland spoke eloquently and with dignity at churches, village council meetings, and community forums. She successfully lobbied New Trier Township to fund a child daycare program, marched with Cesar Chavez, participated in the Great Peace March, and campaigned with her husband in his bid for the 10th District seat in the U.S. House. She was a founding member of the North Shore chapter of SANE/Freeze and the North Suburban Peace Initiative, peace action organizations.
Cleland chaired the Wilmette Housing Commission when it was created in 1980 and was instrumental in the creation of Gates Manor, Wilmette's first low-income rental building.
She was a longtime board member of Open Communities and the Housing Opportunity Development Corporation.
A 1944 graduate of Northwestern University, Cleland spent much of her childhood in Wilmette. In 1950, she and Robert settled there to raise their children.
As committed as she was to civic life, Cleland was happiest at home with her family. She was an old-fashioned homemaker, cooking meals from scratch and hanging the family laundry on the clothesline. The Clelands opened their home to scores of foreign visitors and their backyard to generations of local children, who played on rope swings, flew through the air on an overhead zip line (known as "the pulley") and, in winter, sledded down an icy ramp.
Memorial service plans are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes contributions to Open Communities,
Published in a Chicago Tribune Media Group Publication on Sept. 28, 2013