Creamy soft and untouched by any scar, burn or callous, Geraldine “Jerrie” Elder’s hands resembled flower petals. She manicured them just so, leaving the polish off the bottom so the half-moons peeked out.
Thanks to her hands — and, to a lesser extent, her pretty feet — she did work as a “parts model,” promoting jewelry and stemware.
Even in her later years, she could “do the model pose,” said daughter-in-law Lisa Elder. “She would just kind of hold them up and fold them a different way.”
“She could file her nails for hours,” said her son John. “We’ll have nail polish for the next 10, 15 years because she had nail polish everywhere.”
Mrs. Elder, a skilled seamstress who helped support her family by sewing wedding dresses and drapes, valances and bedspreads, died Monday at Alexian Village of Elk Grove. She was 89, and “it just caught up with her,” said her brother Russ Schert.
She and her husband Walter raised their family in Niles.
In recent years, she often performed at the Niles Senior Center, where she tap-danced and sang show tunes. Mrs. Elder brought the house down with her Lucille Ball impression and played the kazoo in a senior “kitchen” band featuring instruments like washboards and egg-beaters.
Young Jerrie spent much of her youth on the North Side. The Scherts lived near Lincoln, Lawrence and Western in Lincoln Square. She attended St. Matthias grade school and Alvernia High School.
Her father John Harold Schert was a meat-cutter. His occupation helped the family survive the Great Depression with full stomachs. He worked on the North Shore, bringing home whatever went unused or didn’t sell. His wife Ethel braised and slow-cooked the forlorn cuts of meat, tenderizing them into feasts, John Elder said.
At the height of the Depression, Jerrie Elder’s father moved his family to a modest Barrington cottage owned by his in-laws. It was only two rooms, but Russ Schert said, “They made it four bedrooms by using a curtain.” It didn’t have electricity, running water or heat, so they warmed it with a potbelly stove. For the kids, “It was an adventure,” he said.
Thanks to her parents’ frugality and planning, “At the end of the Depression, they had no debts,” her brother said.
Mrs. Elder’s mother, a milliner, made wedding veils. After high school, Jerrie studied sewing at the old Ray-Vogue School. “They told her to model hands and feet,” John Elder said. She did that for about five years, said her daughter Joanne Johnson.
She also taught lessons at Singer Sewing Centers, which used to be cornerstones of many American shopping districts.
Mrs. Elder’s designs were dazzling. In 1976, when her daughter walked down the aisle at her wedding at St. John Brebeuf Church in Niles, she was stunned at the crammed pews. Then, Joanne Johnson said, she realized what drew the crowd.
“They all came to see my mom’s work” on her bridal gown, she said. It was a replica of a $10,000 dress, with hand-beading by her grandmother.
Mrs. Elder met her future husband while working as a secretary for Kemper Insurance, where he worked for 46 years, many of them as an office supply manager. They got married at St. Paul of the Cross Church in Park Ridge. She helped support her family with sewing and jobs at Sears in Golf Mill in Niles, at Banner steel company and as a credit manager for textbook publisher Scott Foresman in Glenview, relatives said.
A frequent volunteer, she headed her daughter’s Girl Scout troop and was active with the parents club at her sons’ school, Notre Dame College Prep in Niles.
Mrs. Elder enjoyed camping throughout the Midwest, liked books by Nora Roberts and watching “Wheel of Fortune” on TV and any movie starring Gene Kelly, said her son Jim Elder.
After a few falls, “We finally told her, at age 80, no more tap-dancing,” her daughter said.
Many of the flowers at her funeral service were red, her favorite color.
Mrs. Elder’s husband died in 1997. She is also survived by six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She was buried with her kazoo, a needle and thread, holy medals and rosaries that belonged to her and her mom. Her family also tucked in two squirt guns, said her son Jim, because “She liked for people to have fun, even if she had to start it.”