Everyone loved heroic, generous ‘Grandma Jo’
By Liz Clemmons
Daily Herald Correspondent
Johanna Boerma ~ 1925-2006
Throughout the 25 years she spent as a lunchroom mother, Johanna Boerma often dug into her own pockets to make sure the poorest of children could receive ice cream.
Thousands of students from Jane Addams Junior High School in Schaumburg and Albert Einstein Elementary School in Hanover Park were the recipients of special treats, clothing and hugs from Mrs. Boerma, who was known as “Grandma Jo” to her small charges.
“The kids who didn’t have coats, she would throw her own coat over them so they could play outside for recess,” said Samuel Boerma, her husband of 56 years.
Children learned many life lessons in the lunchroom under Mrs. Boerma’s watch. Students involved in a disagreement were taught how to resolve differences without being sent to the principal’s office. Those newly arrived from another country were taught English. And children with learning disabilities were shown that they could achieve more than they thought was possible.
“She treated the handicapped kids like normal kids. She got them to do more by giving them a task to do. And then she would reward them,” explained son Fred Boerma.
Mrs. Boerma even saved a student’s life when she walked into a room where the despondant child was about to cut his wrists. She talked him out of ending his life and made sure to keep in touch with him to offer encouragement.
Just last year, the former student, now an adult, called Mrs. Boerma to thank her for helping him.
A resident of Hanover Park for 37 years, Mrs. Boerma died November 13. She was 81.
Throughout her life, Mrs. Boerma tried to make the children around her happy although her own childhood was far from idyllic. Nazi-occupied Holland in World War II was a dangerous place for a young girl who was part Jewish. Wearing the Star of David on a sleeve, which the Nazis demanded those of Jewish ancestory to do, was often a death sentence.
“Wearing the Star of David was like having a target on you. Many were shot right in the streets,” explained Fred Boerma.
Mrs. Boerma’s mother got around the requirement by sewing the star on the inside of her family’s clothes. Recently widowed, she was forced to move her four daughters from place to place to keep them safe from the Nazis.
“It’s amazing the strength she took from that. She grew up with nothing and went on to concentrate on children. She believed that children are the future,” said daughter-in-law Billie Boerma.
Mrs. Boerma was known as “Grandma Jo” not only in the lunchroom but in her neighborhood as well. She was a surrogate mother to countless children, especially those of working mothers. During a one-year period, she had babysat for all 28 children in the neighborhood. The offspring of those children would come to know the kindness of Grandma Jo, who always remembered friends and co-workers with homemade baskets of treats during the holidays.
“If it had anything to do with kids, she was for it. She didn’t have that much money or education, but she was the richest and smartest person I knew,” said Bev Wilkes, who lived next door to the Boerma family for 37 years.
Mrs. Boerma’s generosity was apparent during one summer when Hanover Park hosted a Little League tournament. One team from out of town had nowhere to stay. On two hours’ notice, Mrs. Boerma took in half the team while her neighbor took in the other half.
For five days, a group of 15-year-olds were cared for and fed, and their white uniforms washed everyday.
“What are you going to do? You can’t put these kids out on the street,” was Mrs. Boerma’s opinion.
Bev Wilkes called her friend and neighbor a true humanitarian.
“She opened up her heart, her house, her arms to everyone.”
Mrs. Boerma is survived by her husband, five children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.