Deborah Jo Gehrke, age 66, died on December 25, 2019 in Boston MA. The cause was breast cancer. Deb was born on April 3, 1953 in Chicago Heights Illinois to Joseph Dean Gitersonke, a butcher and sales representative for the Oscar Mayer Corporation, and Joan Carol Gitersonke (Kurth). Deb grew up in Plainfield, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. During high school, she met her future husband, Lee Gehrke, who was her piano accompanist for Deb’s saxophone solo competition. The couple married at her parent’s home in 1974 and moved shortly afterward to Cleveland Ohio, where Deb worked to support her husband’s graduate school studies. Deb was never one to sit home idly while her husband spent long hours in a research laboratory, and she developed her own circle of friends and played competitive softball (pitcher). In 1980, Deb and Lee moved to the Boston area, which has been home ever since. Two children, Lindsay and Andrew, were born, and Deb divided her time among parenting, working, and studying at the Museum School of the Danforth Art Museum. Art, especially sketching and painting, was an early interest, and the homes of many friends and family are embellished with Deb’s watercolor, oil landscapes, and mixed media pieces.
In 2006, Deb and Lee joined the Harvard College community as Faculty Deans of Quincy House, one of Harvard’s twelve undergraduate residences, and home to more than 450 undergraduate students. Quincy House became the perfect outlet for Deb’s extraordinary programmatic and event design skills, coupled with her innate ability to form personal relationships with students. A primary function of a Harvard Faculty Dean is to develop community among the students and staff, and to ensure that the House is a warm, safe, and welcoming home. In an environment of extremely talented, but serious young people, Deb saw her goal as to be the “Fun Dean”, helping students find a way to take time to laugh and be a little silly and form connections with friends. She held popular paint nights in her home, welcoming both novices and more experienced student artists to paint with her for a few hours. She organized ping pong tournaments and competed with some of the best players. She surprised students by making a guest appearance to play saxophone with a big band group that performs at Quincy every year. Students were often surprised that Deb’s personal music play list included the most recent pop songs. With Deb’s leadership and constant encouragement, Quincy House won the Straus Cup for intramural sports the first time in 59 years. Deb took great joy in developing the vision and production of themed student dinners and gatherings in the House. One of her most popular and successful events is her annual “Quincy Lip Sync”, a standing-room only event that highlights previously unknown student performance skills. Deb was also known for her elaborate holiday decorations and for being the first to volunteer to host a dinner to honor a retiring fellow faculty dean. She made legions of online friends with her “Spot the Springer” posts of photos of Ripley the family English Springer Spaniel.
Those close to Deb would describe her as kind, perceptive, thoughtful, and committed to her family. She deeply enriched the lives of her grandchildren, and possessed an intangible quality to project joy to them through creative games, art, jokes, and always a secret present. Her love and patience for them was without limit—the word “no” was not in her vocabulary when it came to either watching them or giving them their favorite treats.
Deb was undeniably mischievous. Her pranks were legendary: family, friends, students, Deans, and distinguished professors alike all fell victim to a rubber snake on safari or the terror blast of a leaf blower on Halloween. Above all, Deb’s kindness and empathy endeared her to family and friends, as well as Harvard colleagues and more than 1,500 students who passed through Quincy House during her service as faculty dean.
Deb is survived by her husband Lee (Cambridge MA), their daughter Lindsay and husband Scott (Waban MA) and their children (Molly 10; Logan 7); their son Andrew and his wife Mary (Framingham MA) and their children (Bruce 4; Claire 3 mo); her brother Dan and his wife Deborah (Aurora IL); and her sister Kathy (Grafton VA). The extended family also includes many nieces and nephews and their spouses and children in Illinois and in Washington DC.
Arrangements are being handled by Keefe Funeral Home (https://www.keefefuneralhome.com/). In lieu of flowers, the family suggests these worthy programs: The Office for the Arts, Harvard University, by writing “In honor of Deb Gehrke and House Arts” on the memo line, to: 74 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, OR contributions may be made to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center FUND at www.bidmc.org/giving or by check made payable to “Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center” with the Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Research Fund on the memo line and mailed to: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Office of Development, 330 Brookline Ave – OV, Boston, MA 02215