Irene Hoekstra, devoted mother, skilled secretary dies at 93

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Alfred and Irene Hoekstra enjoy a performance at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn in 2000. | Sun-Times library


Alfred and Irene Hoekstra enjoy a performance at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn in 2000. | Sun-Times library

It was hard for Irene Hoekstra to leave the little Illinois town of Taylorville and head north to Chicago to find work.

Her childhood was happy, with parents who always kissed each other good night. Her father, Anthony Bruzas, was a coal miner from Lithuania, and her mother, Barbara, was from the Lithuanian town of Krekanava. Somewhere between Europe and Taylorville, their surname was Americanized to “Brush.”

With her mother, “I could share my dreams, my thoughts, my worries, my feelings, my good luck, my bad luck,” Mrs. Hoekstra wrote in a memoir. She immersed herself in Elsie Dinsmore books, about the adventures of a motherless yet indomitable little girl. She took piano lessons and played clarinet in the high school band. The kitchen smelled of blynai (Lithuanian crepes) and koldunai (like their better-known Polish cousins, pierogi). The soundtrack was the buzzing of the cicadas and the warbling of her mother’s canary, known by the Lithuanian endearment, “Murzis.”

But after graduation, she and her parents knew there weren’t many opportunities in Taylorville, about 30 miles southeast of Springfield. Irene Brush headed to Chicago to attend Gregg College, founded by the inventor of Gregg Shorthand, whose squiggles enabled stenographers to take notes no matter how fast the boss talked.

Often homesick, Irene persevered, studying to be a secretary. In the 1930s, jobs for young women were often tedious and powerless. When she and other typists were laid off from an office that none of them liked, they celebrated by going to see a hot new film with a hot new rake: “Gone with the Wind,” featuring Clark Gable as Rhett Butler.

She took night classes at Northwestern University, joined Epsilon Eta Phi, and moved into the sorority house at 67 E. Cedar.

In 1946, at a Northwestern dance, she met a handsome GI whose typing skills rivaled her own. He said his typing kept him away from the front lines at the Battle of the Bulge. Alfred “Al” Hoekstra Jr. “was so witty and personable,” she said in her memoir.

Al and Irene married in 1950 at Northwestern’s little graystone sanctuary, Howes Chapel on Sheridan Road in Evanston. They celebrated with dinner at the glamorous Edgewater Beach Hotel. It was her “happiest day,” Mrs. Hoekstra remembered.

They were together 65 years, until her husband’s death in April. The couple’s devotion was constant, even in their final days, “wheelchairs locked together, watching Turner Classic Movies,” said their son, former Sun-Times writer Dave Hoekstra, when his father died.

“My dad would hold my mom’s thin hand, colored purple by Coumadin,” he wrote on

Like Elsie Dinsmore, she persevered. At her husband’s funeral, her younger son, Doug, asked Mrs. Hoekstra, “Are you going to be all right?”

“I have to be,” she said.

She only had to endure six weeks alone. Mrs. Hoekstra, 93, died May 22 of heart failure at her Naperville home.

In recent years, she struggled with dementia and vision loss. At times, she couldn’t get out of bed. She kept going, even if it was with a walker.

When Doug asked if she needed anything, she replied, “How about a new body?”

“Whenever I had challenges,” he said, “she would be the person who would say ‘Fight, go for it; don’t give up.’ ”

The Hoekstras started married life in an apartment at 5630 S. Trumbull. Her husband’s job as a purchasing agent for Swift & Company meant moves to New Jersey, Ohio and Naperville.

Before having her sons, Mrs. Hoekstra worked as a stenographer at Gulbransen Pianos, Universal Atlas Cement Co. and Ziff Davis Publishing.

As a mom, she volunteered at their schools, teaching art. She helped craft their Halloween costumes. Dave dressed up as one of the most hirsute Chicago Cubs in history, Joe Pepitone. Doug was a character from a book, the Green Ghost.

She took them to the movies, usually, science fiction such as “The Andromeda Strain,” or romances such as “Camelot.” She enjoyed the films of Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford, especially “The Way We Were.” When Mrs. Hoekstra digitized her home movies, that was the soundtrack she chose.


After the boys were raised, in her late 50s, she returned to work as a secretary at Amoco.

She loved roses. And she always asked Doug, who lives in Nashville, what kind of birds were stopping at his feeder.

In 1993, when Dave Hoekstra was assigned to shadow Frank Sinatra during a local appearance, he brought his mother as his date. As Sinatra left his dinner table, “the casino security staff cleared a path by our table. Although I was told not to bother Frank, I started to say hello. Frank ignored me,” he wrote.

“Then he smiled and winked at my mom.”

Mrs. Hoekstra is also survived by a grandson, Jude. Services have been held.

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