Joanne Zinsmeister Yarwood, who raised a large family in Central New York, passed away on Aug. 3, 2018, at the age of 91.
Her forebears from Wales and England had pushed their way over the Appalachians and settled on the thick loam of central Ohio. There they tended small farms and small children with great stamina, read the Scriptures, and kept a dignified quiet. One flash of family color was their deep arsenal of English folk expressions, Bible references and wisdom sayings that they transmitted across the generations.
Joanne Wilcox came into the world in 1926 and absorbed from her parents a powerful work ethic, a fundamental expectation of self-reliance and many skills for making self-sufficiency real. She grew up in a home on Liberty Road that her father built, and trimmed in black walnut he had milled off his own land. She lived a farm-child’s life, learned music and faithfully attended the Powell Methodist Church.
In any schoolroom she entered, Joanne was the most attentive student, and she became valedictorian of a small high-school class that lost boys to World War II, then attended Ohio State University. Excelling in the new science of home economics, she mastered topics like child development, psychology, domestic finance and nutrition. During college she met an engineer who had been sent by the U.S. Army to Ohio State for training. Given how reserved she and Walter Zinsmeister were, experts have no explanation as to how they managed a first dance. Nevertheless, they fell into an enduring love and lifelong marriage.
Joanne moved to her husband’s home region of Central New York, which then as now had a middle-American character very similar to her native Midwest. Like many American women who came of age during the Depression and World War II, she hungered for the regenerative joys of children. In the green fields between Baldwinsville and Liverpool she and Walter raised five offspring. They remained rooted for 50 years in the same home they had purchased as newlyweds, until cancer stole him in 1993.
That home was a hive while Joanne raised five children born within 10 years. The progeny were provided with home-sewn clothes, nourished with strictly homemade meals centered around Walter-grown and Joanne-preserved vegetables, equipped for numerous home-based hobbies, well provided with sheet music and books, confirmed in church and offered as many other accoutrements of family-first living as could be orchestrated by a star trainee in home economics.
Joanne’s racing metabolism yielded a great, fluttering productivity and an indefatigable, self-denying toughness. For about a decade, when her children were very young, she was plagued with health issues that the Mayo Clinic diagnosed as mild multiple sclerosis. It much later turned out that she actually had a slow-growing brain tumor, which was successfully removed. In the interim, she bore this burden, like everything else in her life, with great stoicism and fundamental happiness.
Joanne was an able pianist and brought music into the lives of her children and the next generation of grandchildren. She encouraged her children to be studious, while her husband infected them with rampant curiosity—a combination that fueled learning. She also gave her daughters and son the gift of extended family by helping her parents, after they sold their Ohio farm, move to a home on the opposite side of Cold Springs Road, where they exerted a potent influence on the grandchildren who remained at home.
Joanne often wielded an affecting, and even poetic, pen. Like many introverts she frequently expressed herself much more eloquently in print than in conversation. As her children scattered across the country in their educational and family diasporas, she took to writing long weekly letters, and these informative, frequently philosophical and always affectionate missives came to be prized by all. This was long before computers or photocopiers; Joanne produced her ballads using a manual typewriter, four sheets of carbon paper and five white pages. The recipient of the last carbon copy was in for lots of squinting and creative translation.
Her literary flair encouraged a love of language within her brood, along with broader imaginative skills. Vivid communication, musical capabilities and religious yearning combined in her to create, among her children, interest in worlds unseen.
Joanne and Walter also shared a charming habit of reading books aloud to each other. Most often this involved Walter meandering through histories of Japan or tales of the Plantagenets while standing in the kitchen as Joanne prepared the evening meal. But there were also versions of this in bed. And there was an automotive variant— where Joanne was always the reader, and Walter the audience; there is no instance recorded by history where Walter sat in a passenger’s seat while Joanne drove.
There is also no known record of Joanne wearing pants in the first 75 years of her life. Or of Walter even mouthing the word “sneakers,” ever. They both believed in dressing, Joanne because she loved to. She particularly delighted in the colorful jewelry Walter adored buying for her.
Joanne and Walter enjoyed visiting foreign countries, and eventually sojourned to dozens of lands. They combined these trips with follow-up reading and photo collations that embedded their experiences into deep memories. One thing that flying over all those oceans did not embed in Joanne was any notion of swimming. She was not to be trusted in water deeper than six inches, and there are many comically terrifying accounts of the few times she somehow found herself in a pool or ocean surf.
As her five children grew less parasitic, Joanne exercised her considerable organizational powers by leading the board of the Syracuse Home for many years, including during the crucial period when it fought off state regulators who wanted to close the institution. As president she led the relocation of the Home to Baldwinsville—where an extensive facility combining long-term nursing care, convalescent services and independent retirement living developed. Fittingly, Joanne ended her days as a resident of the Syracuse Home.
Joanne was also heavily involved as a lay leader of University Methodist church, where she exercised her two distinct styles of leadership. There were occasions where organizations she loved were floundering and she stood up in a crowded room and told a director or pastor or gray-templed trustee, without a minced word, that it was time to move in a new direction. When there was no need for that kind of bluntness, her more natural instinct was to meld with others.
She had a marvelous ability to complete another person, particularly a loved one, and bring out his or her best. It is hard to imagine exactly what kind of man Walter Zinsmeister would have been without her at his side, but it seems likely that much of his calm, cheerful, positive outlook on life was an effect of knowing she would always be there for him.
When Joanne remarried after Walter’s death, she likewise helped her second husband, Edwin Yarwood, bloom. The two of them passed additional decades in his rambling Victorian home in Liverpool, terrifying family and neighbors with their stubborn determination to live independently through their 90s.
Joanne was a preeminent force multiplier, a catalyst, a completer and extender of the success and happiness of those she loved. In today’s I/me world, she was emphatically a “we” person. In her marriages, with her children, for her church and community groups, she was most interested in creating a happy “us.” She was never too busy or self-absorbed to drop everything for a loved one in need of comfort, and often anticipated what we wanted before we knew ourselves. The concept of abandonment was foreign to her, and her life was lived almost entirely free of selfishness, meanness or intentional cruelty. Those of us into whom she poured warm empathy and limitless support know that she made us feel bigger, bolder, more competent and more complete.
This ability to love and reinforce others, empowering them with a primal confidence that there is someone who will always adore and support them, come what may, was Joanne’s finest gift. With that grace she made two husbands, five children, 13 grandchildren, and many acquaintances more contented human beings than they could ever have become on their own. Her survivors to keep that quality of love alive amongst their own dear ones, in permanent loyalty to the memory of Joanne Wilcox Zinsmeister Yarwood.
A memorial service hosted by Joanne’s family will be held from 3-4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 18, at Maurer Funeral Home, 300 Second St., Liverpool . Calling hours from 1-3 p.m. at the same location will immediately precede the service.