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Published: Saturday, 7/30/2011

Mary E. Gerken, 1920-2011: Scientist, educator was Perrysburg’s 1937 valedictorian

BY MARK ZABORNEY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Mary E. Gerken, a scientist and educator in the era of stay-at-home moms who as a young widow and professional raised four children, died Thursday in the Glendale assisted living center, where she had lived the last seven years.

She was 90 and suffered from dementia.

She was in her 70s when she retired after teaching industrial hygiene classes at the University of Toledo and former Medical College of Ohio, her son Pete, president of the Lucas County commissioners, said.

That last chapter of her career was unexpected. She spent several years in Minnesota, teaching a Native American group and working for a community of religious sisters. She’d faced a bout with cancer.

“I came back to Toledo with $300 and my car as my financial assets,” Mrs. Gerken wrote in a 1982 Blade article. “At age 55, a widow of 18 years with four grown children, I needed a job.”

She wore a hard hat, safety glasses, and work coat, and held a respirator in The Blade photo by Lee Merkle that accompanied the article. With her science background, the UT placement office suggested she seek a federal job. She became an industrial hygienist with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

She made sure workers were not overexposed to toxic solvents or cancer-causing agents. She climbed factory stacks several stories high to check emissions.

“She found out she could enhance the lives of workers and protect workers,” her son said.

She wrote that her teaching background was valuable, “since much of my job is a teaching process,” and that she’d always liked work that was different from the usual.

“In this job, one does have to have a sense of humor and a good self-image (often no one likes what you’re doing),” she wrote.

She was born Aug. 29, 1920, in Des Moines to Nettie Mosher, an Army nurse in World War I. She was young when her father abandoned them. Her mother found a nursing job at Mercy Hospital in Toledo, and the pair moved to northwest Ohio.

She was valedictorian of her 1937 graduating class at Perrysburg High School. That fall, she attended Mary Manse College with a scholarship awarded through a competitive exam. She had a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry.

After World War II, she married George Gerken, an Army veteran liberated from a prisoner of war camp in Germany. The couple had four children. She was working in a laboratory at the Sun Oil refinery when her husband died from stomach cancer in 1958.

She received master’s degrees in science education and science-microbiology from UT. She taught at Sylvania High School and at St. Ursula Academy. She was director of continuing education at Mary Manse College, where she was an assistant professor of science.

“She was the ultimate single mother,” her son said. “She got up and made sure we were fed and cared for and safe and secure.”

She brought her aging mother into the family’s Old West End home, and she helped her mother-in-law.

“She was always taking care of people,” her daughter Fran said.

“When you’re a child, you just think this is what the situation is. I didn’t know until I was an adult. It’s just astonishing to me what she did accomplish.”

She insisted her children have a broad liberal arts background — they all played musical instruments — and a good college education.

She was a Eucharistic minister at St. Pius X Church. She took part in Zonta International and was a volunteer.

“She instilled in us a core of social justice,” her son said. “She was a very faithful and spiritual woman.”

Surviving are her daughters, Cathy McNeilly and Fran Martone; sons, George and Pete Gerken; 17 grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren.

The family will receive friends from 2-7 p.m. Sunday in the Ansberg-West Funeral Home, with a recitation of the Rosary at 3 p.m. in the mortuary. Funeral services will be at 10:30 a.m. Monday in St. Pius X Church, with visitation beginning at 10 a.m.

The family suggests tributes to Hospice of Northwest Ohio.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: mzaborney@theblade.com or 419-724-6182.



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