Jeanne Shiras and Jean Nelson
They’ve been friends for a long time.
Jeanne Shiras and Jean Nelson grew up in Oshkosh, just two blocks apart Jeanne Shiras on Winnebago Street and Jean Nelson on Boyd.
“But I’d never have known Jean if the Catholics hadn’t closed their (St. Mary) high school,” said Jeanne Shiras.
The bobbysoxers met in Miss Loy’s Latin class at Oshkosh High School, which was then on Algoma Boulevard. Today they’re regular LIR presenters and curriculum committee members.
Jeanne Shiras knew in high school that she wanted to be a city manager, but in the 1940s females didn’t admit to such wild notions. Acceptable roles for women were teaching, nursing and motherhood.
Years later, she was a city manager after earning a master’s degree in public administration from Indiana University. She admits now, “It was boring.” Fighting for social causes became her real forte, working for equal opportunity and fair housing.
Jean Nelson graduated from Oshkosh State Teachers College, and her high school friend dutifully enrolled at Northwestern University, her mother’s choice.
“My mother wanted me to get a husband -a nice, industrial CEO,” said Jeanne.
Coed housing in Evanston was limited to sorority houses, which also wasn’t her cup of tea. She would have preferred a degree from the University of Chicago or the Illinois Institute of Technology.
However, her mother was right: she met the love of her life at Northwestern. Don Shiras was a returning GI who became a journalist. And the windy city captured her heart -the Art Institute, Lake Shore Drive and the Chicago Symphony.
For 36 years she and Don lived in nearby Gary, Indiana, where they raised four children. Now a great-grandmother, she doesn’t miss an opportunity -a party or awake -to return to Gary, which she describes as “a strikingly beautiful city.”
Her eyes twinkling with mischief, she added with playful conviction, “You know, Chicago is a suburb of Gary.”
Geography and life’s responsibilities kept the two friends apart for decades. Meanwhile, Jean Nelson was enjoying her dream job as alumni director at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. For many of those years, she and her husband Philip also provided home care for ailing family members.
Phone calls, notes, and visits kept the friends in touch. When they did see each other, their friendship didn’t have to restart.
Summers at the family cottage on Lake Butte des Morts brought Jeanne back to Wisconsin, and eventually, she and Don bought the place. They moved there when he retired about 10 years ago, but he died not long afterward.
Being close friends doesn’t mean living in one another’s pockets, said Jeanne. But when Philip Nelson died suddenly two years ago, she was there to lean on and to listen.
And always there were books.
Reading is as necessary as breathing to these women. The walls of their homes are lined with shelves crammed with books.
Jean Nelson said since the events of September 11, she has turned to some of her books about World War II to help sort things out. She read again of the stoic courage of Londoners during the blitz, when for years they endured bombings and rocket attacks night after night. (The era is especially close to her heart because Philip served in London during the war.)
She normally reads four or five books at a time, picking up whatever her mood at the moment. Books about reading are high on her list, such as “One Hundred One Night Reads,” by David and John Majors.
“It has led me to authors I might never have read,” she said in her low-pitched, melodic voice. Both women said their husbands shared their love of reading. They miss being able to discuss books and world events with them, a constant reminder of their loss.
Jeanne Shiras said, “Everybody in my family read insatiably and eclectically.” And they believed living in a democracy required being informed. She remains committed to being involved, as a member of the Algoma Town Board and a mediator for Winnebago County.
She enjoys visiting homes of women authors and having her picture taken on their porches. Her collection includes Willa Cather, Emily Dickinson, and Eudora Welty.
Jean Nelson’s personal library is well organized. Laughing, she said, “You’ll find Goethe’s ‘Faust’ fourth from the right on the second shelf.”
Jeanne Shiras prefers books that make a difference, such as Virginia Wolff’s “A Room of One’s Own,” Einstein’s “Dreams” and “Galileo’s Daughter.”