Jean Rolfing Cleland, 89, whose life was defined by devotion to social justice, hands-on advocacy, family, and faith, died September 19 in her Wilmette home. Until early 2013 Cleland worked at the North Shore Senior Center as a case manager and the Community Education Director. For 35 years she helped clients plan for retirement and navigate Medicare, Medicaid and other benefit programs. A passionate crusader for fair and affordable housing, Cleland was a founder in the 1950s and '60s of the Wilmette Human Relations Committee and the North Shore Summer Project, catalysts for ending north suburban housing discrimination. The NSSP orchestrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s historic 1965 speech on the Winnetka Village Green. As members of Wilmette's First Congregational Church, UCC (United Church of Christ) for 54 years, she and her husband, Robert, challenged the congregation to oppose the Vietnam War and to support civil rights and nuclear disarmament. "Justice doesn't happen accidentally," she once said. "It takes hard work and strong beliefs." The Clelands joined the First Congregational Church of Evanston, UCC in 2004. In the 1970s and '80s, Cleland was moderator of UCC's Chicago Metropolitan Association and later, president of its Illinois Conference. She also marched with Cesar Chavez, participated in the Great Peace March, and campaigned for her husband in his bid for a seat in the U.S. House. Cleland was a longtime board member of Open Communities and the Housing Opportunity Development Corporation. As chair of the Wilmette Housing Commission, she successfully lobbied for three low-income senior buildings in the village. A 1944 graduate of Northwestern University, Cleland spent much of her early life in Wilmette. In 1950, she and Robert settled there to raise their children, David, Stuart, Carter, Phillip, Trena, and Roger. As committed as she was to civic life, Cleland loved nothing more than being at home with her family. She was an old-fashioned homemaker, cooking meals from scratch and hanging the family laundry on the clothesline. The Clelands opened their home to scores of foreign visitors and their backyard to generations of local children. Memorial service plans are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes contributions to Open Communities, www.interfaithhousingcenter.org
Published by Chicago Sun-Times on Sep. 22, 2013.