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Jean E. (Laitinen) Neff
February 26, 1928 ~ February 7, 2024 (age 95) 95 Years Old
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Jean Elinor Laitinen Neff, 95, died peacefully at home in Roxbury, Conn. on Feb. 7 with her husband of 72 years, Henry, and other family members at her side. A graduate of Juilliard, Jean shared her love and gift for music through piano lessons, school teaching, choir direction and organ playing at the Roxbury Congregational Church, where for decades she was a fixture. She was beloved by all for her kind, gentle manner, and willingness to help others. She always looked on the bright side, even when enduring difficult medical issues in her final years.
Jean was born in Hartford, Conn., on Feb. 26, 1928, as the second of three children of Marguerite and Oscar Laitinen. The family moved from East Hartford to West Hartford after the 1936 Connecticut River flood damaged their home. With water up to the windowsills of the house, neighbors helped save the family’s beloved piano by lifting it onto chairs. Jean recalled the excitement of venturing out into the flooded streets in a rowboat with her older brother, Don, who called her Skippy.
From her mother, Jean inherited a love of words that showed up in her long, newsy cards and letters, her insistence on proper English usage (no wonder one son became a writer and editor), and her daily crossword-puzzle solving. Her father was a commercial artist who imbued her with a creativity that expressed itself in her musicality, craft projects, cooking and baking, and colorful gardens.
Her dad’s Finnish ancestry was a point of pride for Jean, who joked that she had “skinny Finn legs like Paavo Nurmi,” referring to the great 1920s distance runner known as the Flying Finn. One of the special dishes she made at Christmas was what she claimed was a Finnish specialty called “pirra coita”—flavorful, dumpling-sized meat pies served in beef broth.
In the mid-1940s, quiet Jean was smitten by the far more outgoing Henry when he sat in front of her in geometry class at Hall High School in West Hartford. They learned that they shared a love of music. Both had taken piano lessons at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford. They traded letters while she pursued her piano studies in New York, and he served in the Coast Guard and attended Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. They were married in 1951.
Jean and Henry were the love of each other’s lives, relishing every spin on the floor as impeccably graceful dance partners and every turn at the keyboard, where they played duets. Whatever Henry suggested they do, Jean was “gung ho,” as he puts it. They remained inseparable for three-quarters of a century.
Jean’s devotion to their children, Brian, and Craig, was beyond measure. She was a patient listener, a constant encourager, a Cub Scout den mother, and the pianist for their school events. She attended nearly all their ball games, wrestling matches and cross-country races. Henry says the only time he ever saw his wife mad was when a high-school wrestling opponent would attempt what Jean deemed a dirty move against one of their sons.
In addition to her music teaching, Jean served as assistant to the manager of Golden Harvest dairy farm, where she became a confidante and second mother to some of the farm workers. Acquaintances would be surprised when this seeming “housewife” explained to them why Guernsey milk is far superior to Holstein milk. Upon coming home one day, she sent Craig to the car to bring in the surprise she had brought. He was startled to find a pig’s head, which she planned to make into head cheese.
Retirement enabled Jean and Henry to travel to places like the Caribbean, the American West and Vienna, home of Mozart and Beethoven. They took day trips to Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun Casino, where Jean avidly played the penny slots and people watched. To earn extra money for their trips—and because they liked being outside together—they worked as gardeners at homes in the area for years.
Jean is survived by husband Henry; sons Brian and Craig; Brian’s wife, Heidi, who was a tireless and selfless caregiver for her over the last few years; Brian’s children, Todd and Jenny, and their families, which include two great granddaughters, Julia, and Harper; and nine nieces and nephews and their families. Jean was predeceased by her older brother, Don, and her younger sister, Carolyn Calcagni.
Special thanks to the team from the home health-care service RVNAhealth, especially Ronnie and Jodi, for all they did to tend to Jean on their regular visits. They enabled her to remain at home, near her beloved Henry, which brought her great comfort and happiness.
No memorial is scheduled at this time.
Donations in Jean’s memory can be sent to the Roxbury Congregational Church (24 Church St., Roxbury, CT 06783) or the Roxbury Scholarship Foundation (P.O. Box 106, Roxbury, CT 06783), on whose selection committee Jean served for years.
Munson Lovetere Funeral Home assisted the family with the arrangements. To leave an online condolence please visit www.munsonloveterefuneralhome.com