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updated: 2/27/2014 6:31 PM

Jean Grotberg: A life of music, teaching and politics

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By Eileen O. Daday
Daily Herald correspondent

Elizabeth Jean Grotberg shared her music with four first ladies, and she was a favorite pianist of designer Oscar de la Renta at his charitable fundraisers.

But around St. Charles, she was known as a caring teacher and conductor. Grotberg created the stringed instrument program in St. Charles Unit School District 303 and later started the orchestra program at St. Charles High School.

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Grotberg died Feb. 21. She was 93.

"What mattered to her most, was that all kids have an opportunity to play," said her son, Ben Oswalt, of North Aurora, who succeeded his mother as orchestra director at St. Charles East High School.

"She saw the great, inherent value of anyone learning to play a musical instrument," Oswalt said, "and as the creator of the strings and orchestra programs, she was the perfect one to do it. She was gracious, nice and encouraging of her students."

Grotberg grew up in Union City, Ind., surrounded by music. Her father played piano and violin and taught music in the schools. The family also ran a music store.

"My mother grew up learning to play multiple instruments," Oswalt said. "She even played the tuba one year in the Union City High School marching band."

Grotberg continued with music at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., where she majored in music performance, with concentrations in piano, organ and violin.

A first marriage resulted in the birth of her two children, Melinda and Ben, before she met and married John Grotberg, a widower with three children, in 1963.

The couple shared a common interest in music and they were among the first performers at the Pheasant Run Resort when it opened in 1963 in St. Charles, with John Grotberg singing and his wife accompanying him on piano.

In 1967 school officials turned to Jean Grotberg to start a stringed instrument program. Early on, her son says, she taught violin classes at five of the district schools, before hiring more teachers. She directed the first districtwide concert in 1968.

At the same time, she remained active in community theater, while conducting the pit orchestras for musicals at St. Charles High School and for productions at the Norris Cultural Center, all directed by Ron Koeppl.

"Jean was an excellent musician," Koeppl said. "She did everything."

Grotberg retired from the school district in 1984 to accompany her husband to Washington, when after a long career in the Illinois House and Senate, he was elected as U.S. Representative from Illinois' 14th District.

John Grotberg served only two years before succumbing to cancer -- Dennis Hastert was elected to fill his seat -- but Washington leaders quickly learned of his wife's musical talents. She began playing in stringed quartets with other congressional wives before being invited to play piano for Nancy Reagan's First Lady's Luncheon.

Grotberg eventually played at similar luncheons for Barbara Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush as well as other Washington fundraisers.

She returned to the area in 2001 and in 2007 the Elgin Youth Symphony named her their Educator of the Year, recognizing her work in creating the strings program in the St. Charles schools, which had a big impact on the youth symphony.

"Her hard work was manifested in the wonderful strings players in our symphony," said Kathy Matthews, executive director. "We pull from 60 communities, but St. Charles has routinely had the highest percentage of students."

Besides her son, Grotberg is survived by her daughter, Melinda Oswalt Ramsden of Geneva; stepdaughters Sandra (Chuck Barbour) Grotberg of Chambersburg, Pa.; Karen (Lloyd) Weinberg of Asheville, N.C.; and stepson, James (Karen Rubner) Grotberg of Ann Arbor, Mich.; as well as seven grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.

Services are pending.

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