ELYRIA — In another life, JoAnn Eichenlaub could have been Mary Barra, the first woman to be CEO of a major U.S. carmaker.
She said so herself.
One day while speaking to her daughter, Marsha Price, the woman who many came to know because of her authentic and genuine personality, said she didn’t think she was destined to just be the mother of six — although she did that at a level equivalent to that of a chief executive officer.
“My mother was intelligent, independent, articulate and cared about her community and the human condition,” Price said. “There is no question about it. She was capable of being that and more.”
Eichenlaub — outspoken, down to earth and even known to crack a joke in the presence of the president of the United States — died Saturday following a long illness. She was 87.
The matriarch of a large Roman Catholic family of six children, 19 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren was many things to many people.
She was a politically savvy woman who in 1991 ran as a Republican against former Mayor Mike Keys, but lost in a respectable showing after garnering 42 percent the vote.
“She could have done a good job if elected,” said Elyria City Councilman Jack Baird, R-at large. “She definitely did a great job as a mother. Look at her sons. She could have been a good mother for the city of Elyria.”
For decades, the Eichenlaub name has been synonymous with city service.
Her son, the late Chris Eichenlaub, was the city’s safety service director when he died in 2011 while working for former Mayor Bill Grace. Sons Andy and Matthew Eichenlaub serve as a captain and lieutenant in the Elyria Police Department.
It was around when Grace was running for office when Eichenlaub took the bold step of switching political parties. She became a Democrat.
“Her beliefs changed as she got older,” Price said. “We wanted to be with like-minded people who were about action. She thought the best way to support a cause was to join it.”
Grace, who later succeeded in besting Keys, said although he knew JoAnn Eichenlaub for many years, the two never talked politics.
“We shared an obvious love and interest in our city, and she was not one to not speak her mind. But to me, when I think of JoAnn, I think about how much she loved her family,” he said. “Family was everything to her.”
Price, who had the privilege of growing up in a house with five brothers and parents who were as strong individually as they were together, said she knew Eichenlaub as both her mother and her friend. Growing up in Elyria, she knew to behave because everyone knew her mother.
“I wouldn’t dare disgrace her,” Price said.
Through the unique lens of that dual relationship, Price said she learned why her mother was so revered in the community. A champion for social justice, she served on the board of the Elyria YWCA and was the go-to person at the now-closed Sacred Heart Church.
“They always say you go to the busy person first if you want help and with JoAnn that rang completely true,” said Sister Marietta Starrie. “If you want to know what JoAnn did, just say everything because that will probably cover it.”
About the only thing she didn’t do was sing, Starrie said.
When the Cleveland Catholic Dioceses unveiled its Vibrant Parish Plan several years ago and with it a call to close dozens of churches in the region, Eichenlaub, a more-than-40-year member of Sacred Heart, was tapped as one of many to reassure parishioners that the Catholic Church had not abandoned them.
Starrie said Eichenlaub helped many families transition to new church homes in the city. She was in her early 80s at the time.
The woman whose favorite book was the dictionary, would pick watching a sports game over a soap opera, did crossword puzzles in pen, was a ferocious reader and also had an insatiable appetite for helping anyone in need.
She raised money to help needy families buy food and clothing in the 1960s and 1970s, when there were few social agencies to handle the work. If she had to pick up her son John Eichenlaub from the airport and spotted other sailors sleeping on the floor between flights, she brought them home to Elyria for a hot meal and warm bed.
“I can remember when I was about 15 years old and the local authority brought this 17-year-old kid to our door,” Price said. “He was picked up as a vagrant. He didn’t do anything criminal but ran away from his reservation. The authorities brought him to our doorstep. He stayed with us for five years. We just grew up learning that all people had needs, and it was our responsibility to do what we could to help.”