Jean Fortwengler, who worked with her husband Joe for many years as a Ulano representative in the Midwest, died on Jan. 20 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Jean served as the coordinator of Ulano’s trade-show activities, both in North America for some 30 years and in Europe from 1986 until her 1994 retirement. She is survived by Joe, their three children, and five grandchildren.
When I joined Ulano in 1972, Jean was already a fixture in our small, feisty industry. I first worked with her at Screen Print '73 in Atlanta, where the entire show was accommodated in the small basement room of a hotel. After all, there were only 61 exhibitors! I remember Jean’s incredibly hard work at shows and her tough-mindedness during set-ups. She also knew how to relax after hours and enjoy a libation of Kentucky spirits.
At age 16, Jean had enrolled in nursing school in her native Louisville and later received an advanced degree from Johns Hopkins. Later, when she followed Joe into our industry, Jean brought along her no-nonsense personality. She seldom smiled, smoked cigarettes serially (with impossibly long, gravity-defying ashes), and wore reading glasses low on her nose, like a pince-nez. When she looked over them at you, you knew you were under special scrutiny. Jean was reading your pulse and making an x-ray, too. Although Jean didn’t suffer fools gladly, she never confused ignorance with stupidity, and always offered help to customers freely, however much of it they needed and however long it took. She also had the integrity to be certain she knew what she was talking about.
Roger Jennings remembers Jean’s “ultimate patience with people” and her dry sense of humor. A customer once told Jean that he exposed stencils by holding them over his head close to the ceiling fixture in his kitchen. Jean shot Roger a look, then asked the customer, “Don’t your arms get tired?” She also had great practical ideas, Roger remembers. When Ulano introduced capillary film, Jean distilled the key to its successful use into an easily-remembered phrase: “The wetter the better.”
“In the 1970s and 80s, Jean Fortwengler held two distinct roles: one as the ‘voice’ of Ulano [answering technical] questions, and the other as a leader for women entering sales at the manufacturer level,” says Susan Venell Frecska. “She was the first woman I met on the road.... Jean led the way with her knowledge and willingness to listen.... I couldn’t have asked for a better role model.”
Tina Scarpelli McGugan, formerly with Autotype, remembers Jean as a “fierce competitor,” but just another friend at shows. Jean served as a kind of den mother to “WISP” (Women in Screen Printing), a group of young women who gathered informally at trade shows for mutual support. In its day, WISP fostered an important social evolution in the industry.
Even so, Jean was beyond WISP and ahead of Women’s Lib. In a 1980 article in Screen Printing, Jean was featured as one of a half dozen women pioneers in the screen-printing industry. In that article, she commented, “My whole life I’ve worked mostly with men and…it is a rare instance when I have a problem with that.... I think if you feel liberated, people will react to you that way.... The whole secret to it is to think like a man, but act like a lady and work very hard.”
Jean was also ahead of the curve as a working mother at a time when only a small percentage of American women were. She had thoughts about this, too: “To work and have children, you have to know how to organize your time and be able to come home and devote some very individual time to them.”
If Jean’s observations about being a woman in screen printing seem a bit dated 28 years later, isn’t that really a measure of how far she and those other few women pioneers have brought us? So let us celebrate Jean’s singular personality and her contributions to our industry with fond memories, gratitude, and a Kentucky libation!
Donald Marsden, who contributed this remembrance, is Director of International Commercial Services for Ulano and Chairman of the Academy of Screen Printing Technology. Memorial contributions may be made in Jean Fortwengler’s name to Brighton Gardens of St. Charles, 600 Durham Road, St. Charles, IL 60174.
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