Commentary: Local philanthropist, volunteer Jean Lindemann to be remembered for lifetime of service

Jean Lindemann (right) pictured with Jay Williams, then president of the Milwaukee Public Museum, and local philanthropist Sally Manegold, at a MPM event in 2013. Photo courtesy of Madonna Williams.

Jean Lindemann, an ardent champion of Milwaukee nonprofit organizations who spent almost 70 years working as a volunteer and staff fundraiser at the Milwaukee Public Museum, died on Jan. 27. She was 99.

Like many people who truly know the hardship of loss, Jean lived a life of extraordinary generosity. And like many other people who treasured her friendship and support, I was lucky to have Jean – a first cousin of my mother who I became close to after my mother died – always in my corner, rooting for me and inspiring me with her moxie.

During World War II, Jean’s first husband, Jacob Nunnemacher, a member of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, was killed by a sniper in April 1945, less than a month before the German surrender. He left Jean behind with a newborn daughter. While still a young widow, Jean began volunteering in the history department of the Milwaukee Public Museum, a place she’d first fallen in love with as a child.

She went on to become the first woman elected to the Friends of the Museum board, a booster group for the museum, and, eventually, served as FOM’s executive director for 13 years.

Throughout her decades of service to the museum, Jean — who was married and widowed twice more and raised eight children in all — helped secure millions of dollars to support programs, education, expansions and operations.

She was also famously effective in persuading local philanthropists and family foundation heads, many of whom she knew socially, to back major exhibitions, often by providing the matching funds that were needed to secure federal grants. “The Streets of Old Milwaukee,” “European Village” and “Rainforest” are just a few the museum’s world-class immersive walk-through exhibits that Jean helped bring to fruition.

Jean was diminutive and athletic — she skied, sailed and played tennis competitively — and her signature style was a suit worn over a no-nonsense turtleneck. She was unpretentious to her core and genuinely fascinated by history, geology and anthropology.

Rather than staying up in her executive office, Jean ate lunch with the museum’s scientists, educators and artists at a long table set up in the carpentry shop, and she loved these midday breaks full of gab and laughter. Once she understood what her colleagues were working on and what they needed to make progress — a research trip or a new microscope — she would say, “Hmm, let me think about that,” and consult her little black book (yes, she kept one) to find just the right donor to pitch in.

“If I have anything to say about it, the museum will continue to meet the needs of the people,” Jean wrote to a prospective donor in 1991, after she’d retired from her MPM staff position but continued to volunteer every week to help with fundraising. “Hope I have convinced you to do the same.”

Jean was also an active volunteer for the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin and Discovery World, among many other local organizations.

When my husband, Dan, and I started BizTimes Media (then known as Small Business Times) in 1995, Jean put on a power suit once again and came into our office, where she made cold calls to local businesses, encouraging them to place ads. I can still hear her on the phone speaking in her warm, funny, fired-up way about our new startup.

What she demonstrated was how to remain yourself and use your honest conviction to help create positive change and new opportunities. And with her energy and enthusiasm, she showed those of us in the nonprofit world and beyond what a great gift it is to live in her civic-minded way, always ready to roll up her sleeves and help.

Kate Meyer is co-owner and director of community engagement for BizTimes Media.

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