Joanna WS Courteau, 81, of Ames, Iowa and Ann Arbor, Michigan, died July 5, 2020, at home in Ann Arbor, after a brief illness.
She was born in 1939, in Lwów, Poland, to Ryszard Wojtowicz and Lidia (Bukstejn) Wojtowicz. Joanna’s father was in the Polish Army and was sent to labor camps in Siberia; he died from starvation and illness shortly after his release. Joanna spent her childhood years with her small remaining family in labor camps in the Ukraine, and then as a war refugee under the direction of the Polish Government in Exile and the International Red Cross in the Soviet Union (Central Asia republics), Iran, India (where her sister Krystyna was born), and Africa. Joanna always described this period of her life as one of fun and adventure, and it was during these years that she developed her lifelong capacity for learning new languages and her love of travel.
The family eventually settled in Brazil, where Joanna graduated from high school in 1956. She won a scholarship to attend the University of Minnesota, and arrived in the U.S. knowing no English, so her advisor recommended that she take a Spanish class to have something easier than her pre-med science classes—and a Spanish class is where she met Richard (Dick) Courteau, her future husband (they married in 1957). Although she completed undergraduate pre-medical training, along with a degree in Spanish and Portuguese, she received a better fellowship under the post-Sputnik National Defense Education Act to pursue graduate studies in foreign languages; family financial constraints dictated that she accept the higher fellowship and give up her lifelong dream of being a doctor. She earned a Ph.D. in Romance Languages in 1970, completing her dissertation while having and raising two children.
Joanna worked as a professor of Spanish and Portuguese for more than 40 years, at Sullins College in Virginia, at University at Arkansas, and at Iowa State University. She was a dedicated and accomplished faculty member who wrote dozens of publications and books of literary criticism on Portuguese poets including Rosalia da Castro and Fernando Pessoa, and worked to get Portuguese included in the curriculum. She was active on myriad faculty committees, promoting diversity and inclusion (she helped put in place a diversity requirement in the curriculum and developed the multicultural education classes to fulfill it), supporting adjunct faculty, working on behalf of the World Affairs Institute, and advocating for bioethics to be applied to the university’s research mission. She was also active in various professional organizations and served on many boards; she was a co-founding member of the American Portuguese Studies Association. She received Iowa State’s prestigious Wilton Park International Award in 1997, and was named a University Professor in 1999. More important to her than any professional recognition or accomplishment, however, was her enthusiastic mentorship of hundreds of students over the years. She offered support, advice, and welcoming arms to not only her assigned advisees, but to any student who came to her. She developed and led study-abroad programs in Portugal and Spain for nearly a decade. She hosted small dinners and big parties for her students as well as a large community of academics, international visitors, and political activists, and was often referred to as the “hostess with the mostest.” She loved nothing more than gathering a group and sharing food.
Joanna retired from Iowa State University in 2007. After her divorce from Dick in 1975, she married Charles Gratto, a professor of agricultural economics at Iowa State, in 1977. In retirement, she and Charlie became interested in screenwriting, and they worked on a number of screenplays together. After Charlie’s death in 2006, Joanna moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to be close to her two grandchildren. She was a devoted grandmother, attending every school event, concert, and play that the grandkids were involved in, and often bringing along her friends.
Joanna continued to be interested in filmmaking and writing, and also became interested in storytelling. She was a frequent participant in local Moth storytelling events (part of the larger Moth organization affiliated with NPR); several times her story was voted top for the evening and she advanced to the Grand Slam. One of her stories is featured in the national Moth podcast.
Alongside her lifelong interest in literature, stories, and story-telling, Joanna was a passionate progressive political activist and social justice warrior. Early in her years in the U.S., she started working on civil rights issues as well as the peace movement. She and Dick organized and led the first Earth Day rally at the University of Arkansas, and for years afterward sponsored neighborhood cleanups each year on Earth Day. She enthusiastically embraced the caucus process in Iowa, working on behalf of a series of progressive Presidential candidates over the years, and maintaining her residence in Iowa so that she could continue to be involved there; she participated in her last caucus by videoconference in February 2020, along with other Iowans in Ann Arbor. She served as a county delegate and alternate to the state convention several times, and was proud to have contributed civil rights wording to the state platform. With her friend Ellen Hadwiger, she co-founded the Archie C. and Nancy Martin Foundation in Ames to recognize the efforts of this historic family in supporting early black students at Iowa State University (which culminated in several historical markers, a scholarship fund, and the naming of a residence hall after the Martins). She contributed to the Beyond Welfare and Community that Works programs in Ames, including offering her home as temporary housing for those in need. In Ann Arbor, she worked tirelessly for social justice causes, including as a volunteer with the Dispute Resolution Center, where she worked with dispute resolution programs at Ypsilanti High, summer camps for youth, restorative justice, and post-prison programs. She was an active community member in her faith communities: the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth; the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor; and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ames. She worked tirelessly on behalf of immigrants, helping with the Washtenaw ID project, joining the COSECHA movement in Ann Arbor, offering translation services when needed, and supporting the sanctuary movement.
Her friends describe her as a scholar, a storyteller, an actress, an activist, a migrant, a wife, a mother, a grandmother to all, a seeker, and most of all, an example of radical, unconditional love. She will be missed by her family, her large community of friends, and her former husband, who remembers her fondly as the best friend of his life.
Two memorial services will be held to celebrate Joanna’s life at a later time when it is safe to gather for food and fellowship—one in Ann Arbor, and one in Ames. To learn about either memorial, register at https://bit.ly/JoannasMemorial
Memorial contributions can be made in her name to The Dispute Resolution Center, 4133 Washtenaw Avenue, Suite B125, P.O. Box 8645, Ann Arbor, MI 48107-8645; or to Friends United Meeting—Communications Department, 101 Quaker Hill Drive, Richmond, IN, 47374.