Joan Landenberger Trefts, science educator and so much more, died in Jamestown, New York, on Friday, Aug. 13, at the age of 91.
Trefts was born in January 1930 in Bellevue, Pennsylvania, to the late Eleanore C. and William H. Landenberger, and she lived in the Pittsburgh area until she moved to East Aurora, New York during the summer before her high school senior year. She first came to Chautauqua Institution in 1949 with her East Aurora neighbor and future husband, Albert Sharpe Trefts, whose maternal grandfather, Albert Hayes Sharpe — for whom Sharpe Field is named — had for many years been shaping the Institution’s athletic programs for people of all ages. Several friends and members of her extensive family in Pittsburgh were Chautauquans, and she soon felt at home. A 1952 graduate of Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio — where 12 years later, volunteers bound for Mississippi for “Freedom Summer” were trained in nonviolence techniques — Trefts served enthusiastically as president of the Western College Alumni of Northeastern Ohio. In August 1963, when the youngest of her five children was 3 years old, she was elected “chairman” of the new Junior Department of the Chautauqua Women’s Club. She later served as CWC vice president. Graduating from the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle in 1970, Trefts soon became class president as well as a trustee. She avidly read each year’s set of CLSC books while progressing through the levels of reading accomplishment within the Guild of the Seven Seals. She also served two terms as a trustee of the Presbyterian Association of Chautauqua, New York. After living for 17 years in East Aurora, Trefts moved with her family to Shaker Heights, Ohio, in August 1964, and immediately began her long affiliation with Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights by teaching Sunday School.
Trefts started her nearly 40-year adventure — which was at times quite harrowing — with high school level teaching, administration and supervision in urban, suburban and independent school systems within Greater Cleveland in 1972. The only year during which she did not teach was 1997-1998, when her kind and beloved husband stoically fought cancer before his death in August 1998.
While she earned permanent teaching certifications in biological science, economics and home economics, Trefts also taught courses in chemistry, molecular chemistry, physics, child development, home nursing, home management, advanced foods and nutrition, consumer education, mathematics and special education. As 64 languages were being spoken in her high school, she managed 16 translators in each of her classrooms, in addition to her students. Trefts was such a quick study and worked so efficiently that at the end of most school days she coached other teachers or sought out the parents or guardians of students about whom she was concerned, often by knocking on doors. She also routinely called admissions officers at top colleges on behalf of her seniors, urging them to not only accept her students, but also to provide adequate scholarships. In a December 1974 article in the John Adams High School paper titled “J. Trefts Leads Energetic Life,” reporter Jackie Huggins wrote: “When asked who or what had the greatest influence on her life, (Mrs. Trefts) quickly declared her parents did, because ‘they always believed in education for everybody in spite of financial difficulties or racial differences.’ ”
Black lives genuinely mattered to Trefts long before the Black Lives Matter movement emerged. Among her dearest friends were fellow teachers at John Adams, where she worked from 1972-1997. Huggins concluded her article as follows: “The friendly atmosphere of Mrs. Trefts’ classes are due to a large degree to her own personal outlook, which is, as she puts it: ‘I’ve come to the realization that we all have the same basic needs — both student and teacher.’ ”
In May 1982, as her youngest was graduating from college, Trefts received her master of education degree in administration and supervision from John Carroll University, which she had earned while teaching full time. In Ohio and New York she was certified in both disciplines. Two years later, she earned her master of economics at John Carroll. Soon after completing the Administrative Leadership Program at the Cleveland Public Schools Leadership Academy in 1987 and studying administrative leadership at Kent State University in 1989, Trefts served as vice principal of two high school summer schools.
At Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University in 2007 and 2008, she honed her knowledge of physical and earth sciences. Trefts retired from teaching in 2012, at the age of 82. Trefts was a member of the boards of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Playhouse, and the Western Reserve Historical Society. She also served on the boards of numerous state and national genealogical organizations. For instance, she was president general of The National Society of The Dames of the Court of Honor, which annually presents an award to an outstanding graduating commissioned officer at each of the four U.S. military academies. During her retirement, Trefts spent her summers at Chautauqua and the off-season in Shaker Heights and Dunedin, Florida, except for this past year, when she lived in Stillwater, Maine. Trefts is survived by her five children: Dorothy Eleanore (Dede) Trefts (Daniel McEvoy), Albert S. Trefts, Jr. (Victoria Leonhart), William G. Trefts, Deborah C. Trefts and C. Elizabeth Trefts. She is also survived by her grandchildren: Albert S. Trefts III and William P. McEvoy; her step-grandsons, Jonathan McEvoy and Andrew McEvoy (Laura Petnuch); and Andrew and Laura’s three children.
A graveside service for family and close friends will be held at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 8 at the Chautauqua Cemetery. Afterwards, Joan’s family hopes that her friends and theirs will join them in celebrating her life at the Athenaeum Hotel. In lieu of flowers, her family requests that donations in Joan L. Trefts’ memory be made in her name to the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, the Chautauqua Foundation’s Lake Conservation Fund, and/or the Chautauqua Foundation’s Sharpe/Trefts Memorial Fund (for the upkeep of Sharpe Field).