Civic leader Jeannett Slesnick dies at age 76. A city mourns.
A measure of what Jeannett Slesnick meant to the City of Coral Gables was underscored two weeks before her death, when Mayor Vince Lago opened the City Commission meeting by declaring July 11 Jeannett Slesnick Day. With Jeannett’s husband Don and children, Don III and Kathleen, at the podium, Mayor Lago read a list of volunteer positions occupied by Jeannett:
“Former city commissioner of the City Beautiful, past president of the Junior Orange Bowl Committee, chairperson of the Coral Gables Community Foundation, creator of a vital program for seniors called Gables At Home, founding secretary of the board of the Coral Gables Museum, president of the Gables Good Government Committee, volunteer and Sustainer of the Year as a member of the Junior League of Miami, vice chair of the Historic Preservation Board, member of the Coral Gables Economic Development Board, board member of the Coral Gables Garden Club, board member of the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, and 10 years of dedicated service as First Lady…”
To that, the mayor added her active membership at her church and her success as an entrepreneur with her own real estate company and quarterly publication Jeannett’s Journal, followed by a reading of the proclamation and the Key to the City. “I’ve been very selective on who I have given a Key to the City to, and this is an individual who, in my opinion, embodies what Coral Gables stands for,” the mayor said, later adding, “She always stood fast in her love of the city.”
A further measure of Jeannett’s impact on the Gables came two weeks after her death, when some 500 people lined up to greet her family on a Friday evening and then attended a funeral for her at St. Philips Episcopal Church the next day. Those who came to honor her included a veritable “who’s who” of Coral Gables civic, business, and political leaders, along with scores of friends and family. So many people attended the church service that a city trolley had to be used to ferry people from the Biltmore Hotel’s parking lot to the church.
“She was very active, and [the city] became her life after living here for so many years,” says her husband of 54 years, former mayor Don Slesnick. “She thought that giving back to the community was her obligation — and she loved it. I mean, she loved the people in the organizations, and she loved the organizations. She got the biggest charge from being involved, taking part in the decision-making, helping them financially — and, of course, taking pictures. She was considered the official photographer of several of those organizations.” She was also a ubiquitous picture-taker of people in the community, running them in Jeannett’s Journal, a compendium of community events.
Don met Jeannett at the University of Florida, where he was in law school and she was an undergraduate. She was 19 when they first met. He proposed to her on Valentine’s Day in 1969. “I talked her into leaving school to marry me because I was going into the army,” he says. Jeannett agreed, and after a three-month stint in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for Don’s training as an artillery officer, the couple moved to Germany for two years, where Don served as an atomic weapons officer. After another brief stint at Fort Gordon, Georgia, Don went off to serve in Vietnam while Jeannett finished her degree at the University of Florida. After that, the couple moved to Coral Gables, where they bought their first house in 1972. They moved to two other homes, the last on North Greenway, but all were within a 10-block radius in the Gables.
Jeannett then got her realtor’s license, working first for Kerdyk Real Estate and then EWM, where “she just shined. [She] was the best producer in the company out of that office,” says Ginger Jochem, her best friend and later business partner. Jochem joined EWM in 2003, where she and Jeannett hit it off. “We worked together for a year, and then she said, ‘You know, Ginger, I love my philanthropic work, and I can give away more if we start our own company.’ So, we got our broker licenses and started our own company in 2006. We rented space from Don in his law firm, and our first sale was of a $2.2 million home on Jeronimo… At the time, it was called Slesnick and Associates, then we made it Slesnick and Jochem.”
As Jeannett’s professional life blossomed, so did her civic involvement. “She was always thinking of our community,” says Jochem. “She had so much energy it was unbelievable. I was done by six [pm] and she and Don were ready to go out.” One of Jeannett’s proudest achievements, according to Jochem, was her creation of Gables at Home for the Coral Gables Community Foundation. “We went to Boston to study how it was done. It was a community effort to help the elderly… to help seniors go to their doctors, get transportation, to be on alert for accidents — for people who didn’t want an assisted living facility.” Next came the Yayas, her mentoring program to help young women at Coral Gables High School. “Jeannett was always thinking,” says Jochem. “She forever had her community in mind. Right when she was diagnosed with cancer and was going through chemo, she said, ‘I think I‘ll run for Commissioner.’ She won, and she loved that job.”
Jeannett would later run for mayor, twice, each time barely losing by less than 200 votes to Mayor Raul Valdés-Fauli. She took those losses graciously, as she did her struggles with cancer, which went into remission several times before finally taking her life this year. Knowing that her days were numbered, she closed down Jeannett’s Journal with this moving message:
“This will be the last edition of Jeannett’s Journal. As they say in show business, ‘It has been a good run.’ My personal health experience these last few months has brought home the importance of faith, family, and friends. God has been good to me by providing 76 years of a productive, rewarding life…. I shall depart this life believing that Coral Gables will continue to be the most wonderful place to live…”
That love of the Gables was reflected in her Journal, says Susi Davis, another close friend who served as editor of the publication. “She knew there was a missing link in getting news out, with the Herald shutting down much of its Gables coverage,” says Davis. “She wanted to promote the cultural part of the institutions [she supported] that didn’t get much attention, institutions like the Community Foundation and the Garden Club, and their planting of trees and the other things they were doing.”
Susan Rodriguez, president of the Garden Club, met Jeannett in 1988 when “she sold us our first home,” she says. Jeannett became the club’s photographer and a legacy member.
“She loved taking photographs and she documented our history for the past 25 years,” says Rodriguez. “She always bought ads in our yearbook and always encouraged people to attend our fundraisers. She had the most incredible attitude. She always came to our meetings with a smile [despite] what she was going through for the last 14 years – lymphoma, then breast cancer, then lymphoma [again]. She didn’t want to be known for her illness. She was a real trooper.”
She was also a mad supporter of education, says Davis, the force behind scholarship foundations, involved with Friends of Gables High, pushing to refurbish the Coral Gables Library when she was Commissioner (on the Journal’s last cover), and promoting pocket libraries. “She and Don supported one and she was always leaving books everywhere around the city,” says Davis. “She had a brilliant smile, but behind that smile was a fierceness that was unbelievable. When she set her mind to something, she got it done. I think of her as a warrior for Coral Gables.”
She was also a connector. Marlin Ebbert, another close friend, remembers that “she had a wonderful network that she worked from her dining room table.” At times, her home was a veritable salon for the women of the Gables and beyond. “One thing she used to do that was so much fun was to invite a bunch of people to her house — all women — when Don was traveling. She would say, ‘Don’s going to be out of town, so come on over.’ It was a wonderful mix, from state senators to neighbors. Some people would bring food, someone else would come over with something to drink. She just loved those parties and she just loved people.”
City Commissioner Kirk Menendez says he first met Jeannett back in the 1980s, when he coached her son in soccer. Later, when Jeannett became a commissioner, “sometimes I’d go to the Commission meetings to see her in action… As a commissioner, she would stand strong for issues she believed in but [also] had compassion when needed. She embodied both, and that is rare in our world today,” says Menendez.
“The one thing that comes to mind when people think of Jeannett is that she was everywhere, always,” says Menendez. “No matter what the community event, Jeannett made her presence know, from being a person of great faith, a person who cherished her family, a business leader, a leader in government… She did it all, she made an impact, and we are the better for her having been in our lives.”