Jean W. Rothenberg was possessed of a passion for providing services to those with communication disorders: those who were deaf, hearing impaired, or with speech problems. To this and to her boundless energy, she added professional training and a firm belief that she could make a difference. She died in Cincinnati on May 17, 2007 at the age of 98.
In her late 20s, as a result of a bout of flu, Jean became seriously hearing impaired, and this event shaped her entire subsequent life. The only service in Cincinnati was a social group: The League for the Hard of Hearing. This wasn't enough for Jean. She traveled to Cleveland and to New York, and although she had never graduated from college, trained herself to be an aural rehabilitation clinician. Back in Cincinnati, she founded the Speech and Hearing Center (it was later renamed the Hearing Speech and Deaf Center), which she served both as its first president and as an aural rehabilitationist, often taking the most difficult cases for herself.
Dr. Eleanor Stromberg, past Executive Director of the Hearing, Speech and Deaf Center, wrote: "Jean loved to live; she wanted to do, see, feel and hear everything. Of course, her hearing loss prevented her from hearing all of what she wanted to, but she turned that sorrow into her greatest gift—that of restoring human communication for others with hearing loss."
Bob Heuck, a former Board President of the Center, told how Jean could joke about her hearing loss: "When I was about to tell her something, she'd say: 'I'm all batteries!'"She served Center in every imaginable role—as clinician, Board member and President, and especially as ambassador. She became the go-to person for anyone with a communication disorder, and helped—usually successfully—to explain to those with hearing loss why it was important to acquire aids. She became a combination of friend, mentor, and surrogate mother to generations of staff, Board, and volunteers at the Center.
She tended to micromanage the Center, forbidding any popular magazines in the waiting room: no Time, no Reader's Digest, no People Magazine; just professional brochures. "I want people to read about hearing loss, abut speech therapy," she insisted. Not everyone agreed, but she usually prevailed.
She never missed an opportunity to talk about communication losses, and in an impassioned way, would make the point that deafness can be worse than blindness: "If you're deaf," she would say, "you're a nuisance; no one wants to try to talk to you. People get tired of yelling. If you're blind, you can converse."
In view of her efforts for the community, the Cincinnati Enquirer selected her as Woman of the Year, in 1982 and she was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Cincinnati in 1994. She loved sharing the same title of "Doctor" with Bob, her husband of more than sixty years and a respected Cincinnati physician. Jean was especially pleased to receive an award from OSHA (The Ohio Speech and Hearing Association), feeling that an honor from one's colleagues is the highest sort of award.
Jean understood people and how they worked. She had a rather uncanny ability to make each person she met feel like she had found, in them, a special person from whom she knew she had much to learn. Young people were drawn to her for her earthy language and endless supply of distinctly off color jokes; she enjoyed the freedom to be blunt and outrageous, telling it like she saw it. She would not tolerate fools, but was generous with compliments when they were deserved. She had a penetrating glance that defied anyone who would attempt to deceive her, but her smile and mischievous grin could melt any heart. She never met a stranger because she seemed to know or be related to everyone she met.
Jean's pastimes remained rich throughout her life. For over 45 years, she played bridge once or twice a week; founding one game (which still exists) with the statement: "I'm preparing for my old age." One of the great pleasures of her last years was singing in the choir at the Isaac M. Wise Temple. She had sung in the Cincinnati May festival in younger years, and her hearing impairment did nothing to diminish her lovely voice, or her love of music: she attended the Cincinnati Symphony regularly, as well as the Linton Chamber Music Series, which once acknowledged her arrival by playing "Happy Birthday" to her.
At an advanced age she lived independently in her home overlooking the Ohio River, declaring the simple structure "the most beautiful house in Cincinnati." She maintained a schedule that would have exhausted a younger person and mastered the use of e-mail sometime around her 90th birthday.
Shortly after her husband's death, Jean joined a group that met regularly to watch and discuss alternative films. She had met members of the group at the symphony and invited them to invite her to join them. Her daughters, Claire Grossman and Jo Anne Travis, worried that she was in danger, as these people were all otherwise unknown to her, and to them. They might even kidnap her, the daughters feared. "Get used to it," she told them. "I'm going to do what I want to do, with whomever I want to." she told them. She then referred to Jim Kesner, a movie-group member as "My kidnapper."
"Over the next 10 years," Kesner recalls, "Jean accompanied us to no fewer than 269 movies…. The last movie she saw with us was the Brazilian film House of Sand on October 10, 2006, appropriately a movie about a strong, stubborn woman who fights adversity to raise her family and live her life; Jean scored this movie a 5."
Jean Rothenberg was determined to enjoy the world fully and to make it a better place for others. Gary Zola of the American Jewish Archives noted that "She was diminutive in height, but unquestionably a woman of impressive stature." Jean approached life on her own terms and, in the process, provided the many who loved and admired her with a model of how to live.